BAM’s new exhibit explores healing power of art

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Dietrich Wegner, Playhouse
Dietrich Wegner’s “Playhouse” combines the ominous shape of an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud with the lighthearted safe haven of childhood. Courtesy photo
Society has seen its fair share of suffering in the recent past, from natural disasters such as devastating hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados, to brutal wars, civil unrest and crippling worldwide recession.

We react and deal with these events in a myriad of ways.

Some of us openly share our thoughts while others actively look for conduits of change.

Still others choose to silently grieve alone.

Artists, in particular, often utilize their art as a vehicle to express their emotions and to externalize them in a cathartic and therapeutic manner.

This spring, Bellevue Arts Museum presents “Making Mends,” one of the first museum exhibitions in the Northwest to explore the healing power of art.

In media ranging from painting, photography and sculpture to ordinary table salt, the exhibit brings together the works of nationally and internationally known artists, who come to terms with traumatic experiences through the act of creation.

Featured artists include: Debra Baxter, Ben Diller, Cynthia Giachetti, Joey Gottbrath, Margot Quan Knight, Catherine Grisez, Lynne Saad, Vik Muniz, Donna Sharrett, Ehren Tool, Paul Villinski, Anna Von Mertens, Barb Smith, Dietrich Wegner, Motoi Yamamoto, Jennifer Zwick and the Combat Paper Project.

“For these artists, the very process of making, as well as the communicative, communal nature of art which allows them to share their stories with others, becomes an outlet for their emotions, and the foundation on which healing begins,” says BAM Curator Nora Atkinson. “What is produced in response is honest and compelling, exhibiting traces of their own fears and uncertainties alongside elements of catharsis, resilience and occasionally humor.”

Anna Von Mertens, for example, creates quilts of extraordinary depth and complexity.

In the body of work, “As the Stars Go By,” she depicts the movement of the stars as might have been seen during certain violent occurrences in American history such as the Civil War Battle of Antietam, the deadliest battle with the greatest one-day loss of life in the country’s history, and the initial bombing over Baghdad which began during the second war between the U.S. and Iraq.

Von Mertens describes her work as acting on many levels: a memorial, a perspective from a specific moment in history and as a documentation of a natural cycle that is unaware of the acts of violence happening below.

Barb Smith’s work draws attention to the trivial things, the inconsequential traces people leave behind, which she sees as symbols of loss and disintegration, as well as markers of life’s moments. In an untitled piece, dryer lint has been made into a small brooch which has been placed on a sweater. Another shows hair, which has been collected from clothing over the course of a week, as an embellishment of jewelry on a garment.

Dietrich Wegner’s “Playhouse” combines the ominous shape of an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud with the lighthearted safe haven of childhood.

The piece gives rise to thoughts about fears, innocence and the decisions governments make to ensure the safety of their populace.

Ceramics are the medium of choice for artist Ehren Tool, a marine in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, who creates cups stamped with an endless vocabulary of war images and insignia. A display of 200 of these cups sits on a series of shelves against one of the walls in the exhibit.

It’s important to note that the cups Tool makes are not for sale.

He gives them away with a message: “Once a person has witnessed war, they are forever changed.”

Each one is meant to be touched and used, and serves as a day-to-day reminder of the realities of war and its lasting consequences.

Jennifer Zwick’s “Repaired Leaf,” is a photograph of a broken leaf that the artist decided to repair by stitching it up. She created the piece in response to her mom’s breast cancer treatment, mirroring her feelings about the dynamics that take place between the methods of prevention and restoration.

Catherine Grisez’s images are uncomfortable to look at, as they project vulnerable people in pain.

Her project, “Lick,” features sculpture, photographs and narrative components that document both physical and emotional wounds.

A professionally trained jeweler, Grisez creates objects that are ornamental and then creates photos of them embedded in the body within various open “wounds.”

The wounds are shown encrusted with jewels made from vintage earrings, rose quartz and coral beads that seem to ooze out of the sites.

They repulse, yet captivate the viewer, appearing as relics that perhaps possess mystical healing powers.

One of the most fascinating installations in the exhibit is Motoi Yamamoto’s untitled piece, a labyrinth of salt.

Mountains of salt spill over and spread out across the floor into rivulets and form small pools or ponds.

Maze-like, the work speaks of an endless series of paths that humans embark on in their search for meaning, for acceptance and for healing from life’s losses.

Yamamoto constructs his labyrinths over a period of days or weeks and once they have been displayed, they disappear after the exhibit, returning to the mineral state from which they were created. It is apparent that each of the artists featured in this exhibition has chosen to use the process of making art as a way to personally grapple with grief, loss and tragedy. They have chosen not to lose hope nor to disengage, but to be vocal and courageously put their feelings and thoughts on display for all to see.

Perhaps in doing this, they can also help others mend.

“Making Mends” runs through May 27 at Bellevue Arts Museum. For more information: (425) 519-0770 or

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