Hidden Stories, Open Art at Stonington Gallery

by V. Buritsch-Tompkins

Anyone who has been to Pioneer Square but has not been to Stonington Gallery may tell you that they’ve seen it all.  They may tell you that they have gone to the “Boring” museum (dedicated to Big Bertha), been the 12th Man at Centurylink Field, and even walked the stretch from the square to Cone and Steiners’.   After that, you can say – “That’s nice.  But when was the last time you visited Stonington Gallery?”

Stonington Gallery is not a new establishment to Pioneer Square.  Off the corner of Jackson and Occidental,  Stonington is a humbling collection of contemporary Pacific Northwestern and Alaskan artwork.

The collection greets you warmly, encouraging you to come inside and listen to the stories the pieces have to tell you.  And there are many stories wrapped in the masks, statues, and even jewelry for sale.  So many stories.

The one that took me by surprise is the one that sat, unassuming, in a corner, at the end of a long room lined with various masks – some with pulls to make their mouths move.

A Totem, it seemed.  Or was it?  I asked one of the gallery staff – Assistant Director Jewelia Rosenbaum, to give me a hand.  Little did I know, she would also give it life.

I asked Stonington’s Rebecca Blanchard, Co-Director, to help me get a little more perspective on this piece a few weeks later.  The artist, Junior Henderson, is a member of the Kwakwaka’ wakw Nation, and is of the Weiwaikum Band.  Puppets, and transformative masks are a part of the potlatch experience, Rebecca tells me.  Dancers from the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation use these masks to symbolize not only the character before or after the change, but use it as a visual illustration of, say, the Raven’s emotional change, physical change, and even transcendental and spiritual changes.

The Hunter Within

(Junior Henderson – “Raven Transforming Into the Hunter” detail)

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the initial transition from Raven to the Hunter within is so fluid – and only with a guiding hand like fate or change (or dancer – or Jewelia, in my case).  Nor is it a surprise that this totem – or “Transformation Pole” – exists as almost as an evolution of the masks into a full being, alive and sleeping.

Another large “living story” can be found on the far left wall of the gallery.  The round wooden window guides us to a graceful balance of beak and feathers – all carved in red cedar.

In The Beginning.jpg

(Alano Edzerza – “In the Beginning”)

Alano Edzerza‘s “In the Beginning” is another transformation story, of a different kind, and worth a read in its own right.  The creation myth of the Tahltan culture isn’t actually very far removed from the one I learned when I was about eleven, but much more enthusiastic and crafty than I would have remembered.

In the one I remembered, Raven sees the sun and moon on a box of truly precious things, and as it is the only shiny thing he can find, he can’t help himself, so he helps himself to the items instead – and is frightened into dropping them into the sky.

As retold on the Tahltan wesbsite by Rosie Dennis, that just isn’t so. (You can go read the full version. I’ll wait.)

Raven saw that one guy, a wife and daughter had daylight, sun and the moon. Only their place, a brush house, had light. And this whole earth was just pitch dark, yet people lived on it, and Raven thinks to himself, “How could I get the lights away from those people – how could I make myself so that girl could swallow me? Then she’ll bear me and I’ll cry for daylight first, then I’ll cry for the sun, and then I’ll cry for the moon.”

Nancy draws my attention to a detail of the piece that didn’t square with my own Raven story.  Different nations, different tales.

Raven fills the view of the piece as the central focus, but in the middle, just beneath the wing, just over to the side, is an eye – an eye of the young boy (or babe) that Raven is born into – and eventually transforms back out of.  The circle is reminiscent of the many circles within the story as well – The Sun, the Moon, the hole from which smoke exits.  This swirl of excitement, the beginning of all things, is big enough that if I reached out my arms like wings, only my palms and fingertips would reach past the 52″ circle.

It is massive, but not overwhelming.

Alano also had multiple exemplary tempered glass pieces as well, some of which can be seen at the gallery.

Even smaller items hold such warmth and detail that you want to see every angle.

Svetlana Rosgbu’s “Black Dragon” birch bark container is a smaller wooden piece than the two mentioned above, but has its own depth of character.  The contrasting wood paneling of the cup captures the implied movement of the twin dragons.  Svetlana’s art is indicitive of her home country, Siberia, but her artwork finds its home at Stonington as an artist of Alaska as well, her art having been featured at First Light in 2012.

Near Siberia exists the Amur River, or “Black Dragon River” – so is it any wonder that the cup has a fluidity in its winding snake-esque dragons?  This river runs along the border between China and Russia, a dividing line between two distinct cultures.  It makes one contemplate the snarling heads – are they the two countries, staring at one another?  Are they merely the ferocious nature of the river?  (If someone knows how to reach out to Ms. Rosugbu, I’d love to hear what her actual interpretation is.)

On my first visit, I asked about how Stonington came about, and why it chose to include only artists of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.  Simply stated – it was a necessary niche.

In 1979, Nancy Stonington was a well-known watercolorist with a passion for local culture, and she could see that not enough local cultures were being celebrated as art took a step towards new mediums and exciting transitions.  And thus, Stonington Gallery, at its core, began as a portal – an entryway – for people to step in and experience local contemporary art on a level that they had not explored before.

“If you had to pick,” I asked Rebecca, “Which is your favorite?”  I paused a second realized what I had just asked.  “I’m sorry, that was an unfair question.”

The Co-director laughs softly, “I have a new favorite every day.”  She’s beckoned aside to work with a member of the gallery team, and I walk through once more.

Hib Sabin‘s solo exhibit is on display until the end of the month, in the main room, and is placed on pedestals throughout the main gallery.  A mix of woodcarving (juniper, this time), and hand-painted pigments, and some metalworking his art is varied but carries the same sense of purpose throughout.  It is an honesty, and in some cases an unveiled precociousness – tying them all together.  Above, “Passing the Spirit” is juniper wood and pigment – a small boat-shaped pair of birds of prey – a father and child, encouraging the younger bird to slide away, as though it were ready to fly.


In his masks, totems, and woodcarvings, he brings them to life thoughtfully, or into a scene effectively.  His choice of wood for this exhibit being juniper speaks volumes – he has been hailed for being both an educator and artist of the Pacific Southwest, but his art is right at home here in Seattle.

I should draw this “artwalk” to a close, but not before leaving the door open to you:

You don’t have to wait for “Art Walk Thursdays” to visit a gallery.  Many galleries in Pioneer Square are free, with no reservation required to come visit.  Honest.

Stonington Gallery’s hours are:

Weekdays 10am – 6pm (PST)
Saturday 10am – 5:30pm
Sunday 12pm – 5pm

You can find them at:

Stonington Gallery
125 S Jackson St.
Seattle, WA 98104