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Photo: courtesy of The Arctic Refuge Experience

A Story of Beauty and Hope: The Arctic Refuge Experience Comes to DC

Adventurers, explorers and friends of the outdoors, pull out your maps and point to where the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is. If you are not sure where to find it, your GPS should steer you toward Northeastern Alaska.

However, hold off from strapping your hiking boots, because for a limited time you won’t have to leave DC for a chance to experience the refuge. From November 8-11, The Arctic Refuge Experience. Step in. Step Up. is taking over the AutoShop near Union Market to provide a 4-D sensory art installation, with a look and feel that mirrors a walk through the Alaskan wildlife safe-haven. The exhibit is presented by The Wilderness Society and the Gwich’in Steering Committee, in conjunction with the Arctic Refuge Defense Coalition. 

This opportunity is something you do not want to miss out on because the ANWR, naturally, is difficult to visit. Every year only 5,000 people manage to make the trek, making this exhibit a can’t miss opportunity for both art lovers, people invested in environmental issues and even people who work on projects directly related to the refuge. 

“It is incredibly difficult to visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” says Edit Ruano, the director of regional communications strategy for The Wilderness Society. “So difficult that I, who, have worked on protecting the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, actually have never been.”

Upon entry, explorers will reach a threshold where the ground beneath you will suddenly change from the DC streets to the arctic tundra. Thanks to dozens of filmmakers and visitor testimony, you will see the region teeming with life through video and artistic recreations. Ruano and other team members wanted make the experience feel authentic, including the Gwich’in community.

“The Gwich’in are an indigenous community who rely on the Arctic Refuge for their way of life,” she says. “We had the head of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Bernadette Demientieff, in New York, [where] we got to share the video of the experience with her and the council members, and they told us that it felt like being home. We teleported them home [from] New York. For us, that was the biggest compliment we could have received.” 

This 4D experience allows you to feel the arctic wind brush against you and even provides smells of the land. One of Ruano’s favorite experiences was when the wildlife surrounded her. Its artistic qualities not withstanding, the Arctic Refuge Experience also has a deeper purpose as this exhibit demonstrates how this beautiful land is in danger because of oil and gas drilling. 

While the Arctic Refuge Experience is designed to warn and inspire everyone, Ruano and her team spent a year designing it because of the urgency regarding the situation.

“Oil and gas companies and the administration have been trying to fast-track, and expedite sales of the Arctic Refuge ever since the 2017 Tax Act, which included a hidden provision opening up the refuge to oil and gas drilling,” she says. “Since then, they have been expediting the scientific review process, and not doing the due diligence and listening to the voices of people who know about the refuge.”

The experience is a story that shows the beautiful land, the villains, but also the heroes working to save it. This is a tale full of hope and serves as evidence of people working collectively to take action. By attending, you can help take action too, as there are physical phones on location that will empower you to call key individuals and leave voicemails wherein you can express your opinions. During the exhibit’s stop in New York, they managed to get 1100 voicemails declaring that the ANWR is too precious to drill.

Visitors will also become “shareholders” in the No Waaay Corp., the first-ever collective action corporation created with the intention of stopping “ big oil” from harming public lands.

Hopefully, The Arctic Refuge Experience will bring out your inner activist. With climate change constantly in the news, this exhibit hopes to truly connect and engage. This immersive experience is on the first leg of its tour, and Ruano wants to expand and reach other areas so the young people can make their voices heard. “We’re hoping that this that activism happens across the US: In red, blue and purple states alike.”

Though you do not need to be politically active to enjoy this one of a kind experience, the exhibit serves as an opportunity to see the beauty of a difficult place to physically explore, with grander designs to inspire you to protect it. All net proceeds will go to the Gwich’in Steering Committee and Gwich’in Youth Council. 

For more information about the exhibit, visit here.

AutoShop: 416 Morse St. NE, DC; www.unionmarketdc.com/retailer/autoshop

Anchuli Felicia King // Photo: Benita de Wit

Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl Explores Intra-Asian Racism

2019 has been a big year for playwright Anchuli Felicia King. The 25-year-old Thai-Australian will make her professional playwrighting debut not once, not twice, but three times this year with White Pearl. The corporate satire about the beauty industry is premiering in England and Australia before making its American debut at Studio Theatre this November.

To launch a professional career nearly simultaneously on three continents would be unusual for most playwrights, but for King, who grew up between Thailand, the Philippines and Australia and now divides her time between New York, London and Sydney, globalism is the name of the game.

“I’m basically a global citizen,” King told me last week.

We chatted by Skype as King rode a train to the Sydney Theatre Company, where the Australian production of her new play was in rehearsals.

White Pearl, which launched King’s international career, is set in the cultural melting pot of Singapore and features six characters of different Asian backgrounds who work for the fictional beauty startup Clearday. When someone leaks an ad for their skin-whitening cream, the Internet pounces, pronouncing the ad racist and prompting finger pointing among the six very different – but all Asian – women who lead the company. Someone’s getting fired, but who?

King started writing the play in 2016 while she was pursuing an MFA in dramaturgy at Columbia University.

“Ads started coming up on my newsfeed for skin-whitening products that were deemed to be racially insensitive,” she said. “Products like this were ubiquitous when I was growing up in Thailand and the Philippines, so it was fascinating to me that suddenly they were being held accountable to a global discourse around race.”

King asked her friends in Columbia’s Women of Color Collective about their experiences with whitening cream and discovered that the topic hit a nerve with women from all different backgrounds.

“It doesn’t matter what country you come from. You are being sold an idea of what beauty looks like that is so entrenched in your cultural ideology.”

In crafting a dark comedy about the beauty industry, King found the perfect backdrop in corporations – particularly millennial startup culture and the disconnect between the glossy, utopian ideals and the reality of the practices and what they are selling.

“There is this disjunct between surface and substance,” she said of startup companies. “Cosmetics companies specifically prey on and monetize women’s shame and insecurity.”

White Pearl brings the issue to life through six characters: all of them Asian women, but each from very distinct backgrounds and cultures. The Clearday CEO is a British Indian woman, while the other characters have roots in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Singapore.

“My goal with that was to poke holes at the idea that Asia is a monoculture and to explore the specificity of different places in Asia,” King said. “But the play also explores the ongoing cultural traumas and legacies that lead to tension between different Asian cultures and the racism that still happens in Asia.”

In choosing a director for this production, Studio tapped Desdemona Chiang. Born in Taiwan and raised in L.A., Chiang known for taking on projects that illuminate marginalized populations and challenge perceptions of the status quo.

“When I first read the script, it hit me really hard – especially when it discussed the racism of East Asian people,” Chiang told me in a recent conversation. “That hit a very raw spot for me because it was something I recognize sometimes within myself and sometimes in where I come from. I found that really discomforting so I said, ‘Great, that means I have to do this play.’”

I asked Chiang how she thought White Pearl would be perceived by American audiences – Asian and non-Asian – who are geographically and often psychologically further away from Singapore than a London or Sydney audience.

“What’s interesting about this story is that it deals with the same issues we have in America but through a different lens,” she explained. “We talk about racism, classism, beauty standards and implicit bias here, but usually through a black/white lens. To tackle the same issues through a different perspective is interesting.”

King agrees: “It’s fascinating to see how this play resonates differently with different audiences and specifically, different Asian communities in different countries.”

King hopes that the exploration of intra-Asian racism will be eye-opening for non-Asian audiences in America.

“There are also things in the play that are so true of the time we are living in and so universal that will resonate with any audience. At its heart, it’s an old-school black comedy and a satire so I hope the audience laughs a lot and through that, interrogates why they are laughing.”

White Pearl runs from November 6 to December 8 at Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre. Tickets start at $20. Learn more at www.studiotheatre.org.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

Guests interact with the 29Rooms: Expand Your Reality immersive art festival on Opening Night in Washington DC on October 18, 2019. // Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

29Rooms Opens Doors To New Experience in DC

“The sacrifices we make for art.” 

This is what I muttered to myself at 6:30 a.m. on Friday, October 21. I was slated to venture from my Alexandria duplex to DC’s Armory on a cultural adventure to Refinery29’s “29Rooms: Expand Your Reality” exhibit, currently enjoying its first national tour, concurrently making its DC debut. 

The women’s publication first unveiled the concept in 2015, giving attendees of New York Fashion Week an opportunity to walk through 29 distinct artistic experiences, ranging from vibrant and fuzzy to interactive and talkative. Fast forward four years, and the exhibition is on the road visiting cities like Atlanta, Dallas and DC, along with bigger U.S. cultural hubs like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. 

“When I heard we were coming to DC it was an exciting surprise,” says DC native Olivia Fagon, Refinery29’s creative director. “Most of our team is from New York, so there was a little bit of mystery as to what it would mean to bring it here. I think for me, I was super excited to tap local artists who are from DC.”

The DC Armory stop runs through October 27, giving residents of the nation’s capital a chance to walk into, and throughout, rooms created by artists such as Kali Uchis, Yvette Mayorga, Dan Lam and NNEKKAA, and others. As part of this year’s rendition, 29Rooms has added what they’re calling “The Art Park,” an initiative intended to highlight local artists from the cities on the tour, including a stairway toward your dreams created by local illustrator Trap Bob, aka Tenbeete Solomon

Artist Tenbeete Solomon poses at the 29Rooms: Expand Your Reality immersive art festival Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

“I’ve always wanted to work with 29Rooms,” Solomon says. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for forever. My mind went to something expansive. I loved being able to explore with different mediums, because I don’t have the capacity to do these major rollouts, but it’s great to partner with people who have the same ideas and same values.” 

The team behind Refinery29 initially wanted a flat graphic, but she wanted something more engaging. When they suggested a staircase, Solomon approached the canvas thinking about its physicality from all sides, and though she wanted it to feel different than her illustrative works, it would still feel distinctly Trap Bob.

“It’s a weird thing to put a design on,” Solomon says. “I want to make sure each part is like its own piece, but still work together. I do hands a lot, it’s very relatable and something I love to do. They’re the perfect things. It’s my way to reach out to everybody and bringing that idea with the ‘follow your dreams’ theme, which is very, very close to me and my experience. It worked with the idea of climbing the stairs. Just the idea of elevating yourself and literally taking steps to get to where you want to get to. If I didn’t take those steps early in my career, there’s no way I’d be here talking about it.” 

For more local flair, Refinery29 tapped Howard University master of fine arts graduate Jamea Richmond-Edwards to construct a DC-centric full-scale billboard to welcome guests into the gallery. The murals are exclusive to the respective city’s art scene, to highlight the local community. 

Artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards poses at the 29Rooms: Expand Your Reality immersive art festival. // Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

Upon walking past the “Traveling Billboard” and into the main area, you’ll notice the lighting in the Armory is dark, giving each room and piece a spotlight effect. This is apt, as all hold a unique point of view worthy of said spotlight. And no matter which you stumble into, they all are connected by the theme of a woman’s experience in several facets of society and empowerment, echoing that of the publication’s mission.

“It was amazing to bring this brand that is not only pro-female, but very intersectional,” Fagan says. “We’re looking at women from all kinds of points of view. There’s a lot of political undertones in the event as well and those aren’t necessarily supposed to resonate specifically to DC, but I think whatever city we take it to, it makes a strong statement.”

Giving a tour, Fagan identifies a few rooms as fan favorites including “Dream Doorways,” a display with several (you guessed it) doors leading to stunning visuals that could make you question whether you’re on psychedelics; “A Conversation With Your Inner Child,” an interactive room which allows you to tap into the dreams and desires of a younger you; and “29 Questions,” a collection of tables and chairs meant to evoke discussions among strangers congregating throughout the exhibit.  

The different perspectives from a diverse set of artists is meant to represent and reflect those same qualities in the audience of the attendees. For Fagan, the doors are open for everyone, and she hopes people are as excited to explore the rooms to find their own favorites. 

“We always welcome that,” Fagan says. “I think Refinery has perceptions around it: people know us as a women’s publication, people know us for having certain types of values. I think as much as we can attract people in, and then surprise them with something they may not have thought of in a certain way, it’s always a gift if we can. If we’re creating a space where our values are just resonating with that audience already, that’s great too.” 

Gallery times are 1:30-10:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday and 10:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. on Friday-Sunday. Tickets start at $29 and guarantee access for one 2.5 hour session. For more information about 29Rooms, visit here.

DC Armory: 2001 E Capitol St. SE, DC; www.29rooms.com

Photo: Getty Images for IMG/Refinery29

"Lucid Motion" by Rhizomatiks // Photo: courtesy of ARTECHOUSE

ARTECHOUSE Provides View of Art’s Future

Walking into the Lucid Motion exhibit at ARTECHOUSE, I felt like I had stepped into a video game. The main room featured three floor-length screens that projected a video of images showing movement and lights that reflected onto the black floor. The multi-colored bars bounced on the walls in time with each piano note, a futuristic figure danced, drawing out her movement as shapes and fragments of light followed her.

As the name suggests, ARTECHOUSE is a house of art and tech. The space provides a platform for groundbreaking and experimental artists to get their work in front of an audience. Co-founder Sandro Kereselidze says the exhibits are very much a “collaboration” between the space and the artists. Having three locations in the United States, “Lucid Motion” by Daito Manabe x Rhizomatiks Research is the latest exhibit here in DC.      

Manabe is a Japanese designer, programmer and DJ. Launching his company, Rhizomatiks Research in 2006, Manabe now serves as co-director. Similar to the mission statement of ARTECHOUSE, Rhizomatiks attempts to push the boundaries art through his use of technology. This is Manabe’s first solo exhibition in the U.S.

In addition to the main room and its looping video projection, the exhibit featured two others offering authentic interactive experiences. To my right, a thick black curtain exposed a space that featured a large screen showing what appeared to be groupings of glowing, colorful shapes and black lines. As I moved, the configuration moved with me, creating a vaguely human figure on the screen. Despite mirroring my movements, the shapes and lines were still tied to the beat of the music from the main room. 

To my left offered four more screens for audience interaction. All were similar experiences of lines and shapes, blurring into multi-chromatic colored figures, 3-D depth cameras capturing movement and depicting an alternate world. 

Manabe also made use of Augmented reality, or AR, taking computer-generated images and bringing them into the real world. While games like Pokemon Go has made use of this technology used, I had never considered that it could be used to create art.     

My favorite part of the exhibit came when I was handed an iPad in a room with objects sitting atop black tables. A dancer brought to life by AR twirled around the keys of a soundboard, stepping on the keys and creating sound.

Some of the objects were 3D printed specially for the dancer’s movement. Black posters hung on the wall – and when exposed to the iPad, the silhouette of the dancer appeared. She was connected to white lines like a marionette doll, fading in and out, while the lines continued to move. 

The exhibit isn’t the only part of ARTECHOUSE to explore augmented reality. Its bar is the first in the United States to feature this technology. Drinks and cocktails at the bar are served with an image on a coaster or sometimes on the food. With the ARTECHOUSE app, the audience can then scan that image and interact with it. In addition to using AR, the bar also themes its drinks based on the current exhibit. For Manabe’s work, Japanese ingredients were used and a human figure inspired by the silhouette was chosen for the glass.

Manabe’s work was unlike any art exhibit I had experienced before. It shows the future of what dance and art can be in a space like this. The blend of technology and creativity produces an experience that is both entertaining and interactive for audiences of all ages.

“Lucid Motion” runs through December 1. Tickets range from $8-$20. For more information on the gallery or the exhibit, visit here.

ARTECHOUSE: 1238 Maryland Ave SW, DC; www.dc.artechouse.com

Welcome Pavilion from South with Sedum Swoop // Photo: Richard Barnes

The Art + Architecture of The REACH

The Kennedy Center’s original building may be a box-like structure in its physical form, but it has truly grown into a space that cannot be boxed in. A monument, performing arts space, educational center and must-see stop on a list of tourist travel plans: these are all roles the space has held since opening in 1971. 

Naturally, as the Center’s roles have shifted, so have the needs of the community it serves. That’s where The REACH comes in. An expansion of the Center, its sprawling, subterranean layout and public art installations are just as integral to the vision of this new endeavor as the programming that will take place in it. 

The care and attention to detail invoked by those involved in designing the building and placing the art within provides another layer to the deep commitment of the Center – not only to the legacy of its namesake who cherished the arts so dearly, but for the community it will serve in the years to come. 

THE ARCHITECTURE

Chris McVoy, senior partner at Steven Holl Architects, says the selection of their firm to design The REACH was a once-in-a-lifetime commission – the kind of project that makes up an architect’s dream. 

With its serene, subterranean layout, exterior slopes made up of glistening white titanium concrete and lush greenery surrounding the grounds, McVoy says The REACH represents more than a stunning arts campus or extension of the institution the Center established with its original building.

“We had a chance to transform a 1970s notion of what a national performing arts center [is] into a 21st century vision,” he says. “It’s an expansion of an existing building that hasn’t really been touched since 1971.”

McVoy notes how the performing arts and the spaces that house them have changed since the Center opened, both in the District and nationally.

“This was a chance to take that 1971 model and completely transform it and open it up. In the original building, [the arts] are really now held within a box – a very large box. This was a chance to break that open, turn it inside out and open it up to the city.”

Although the building is made of the aforementioned white titanium concrete, another material is an essential part of the building: natural light. McVoy says that Holl will always say natural light is his favorite material when asked what he prefers to work with.

That affinity followed Holl, McVoy and their team to The REACH in an especially effective way. The sweeping windows, skylights and frosted glass blur the lines between the natural and the manmade. When walking through The REACH, it’s easy to forget you’re in an urban space as you’re enveloped by sunshine and greenery throughout.

“[Natural light] is essential to your psychological sense of well-being,” McVoy continues. “You feel good when you have a connection to the outdoors. You know what the weather is like outside, you know what time of day it is, you know what season it is. When you put that in a rehearsal space or performance space, it gives the artists or the audience a critical connection to the outdoors. It’s inspiring. Often when you’re rehearsing, you’re there eight hours a day. To have this feeling of relief in the light gives a whole inspiration to the process of making art.”

McVoy and senior associate Garrick Ambrose felt inspired during the process of constructing The REACH, pioneering an internal design element with their team just for the space. Called crinkle concrete, it adorns the walls of the Justice Forum and other rehearsal spaces. And although the Justice Forum is the only room in the space without windows, the fluidity created by the design also emulates the same natural serenity as the rest of the building. Its crisp acoustics are also novel, as concrete is not necessarily known for creating purity of sound.

McVoy notes that his team had the idea to imprint the concrete with a texture that does the acoustical work of diffusing the sound.

“We did many studies of what kind of texture we could put into the form work of the concrete to create this diffusion. [Ambrose] was doing experiments and found this idea of a crinkle concrete, where by taking a sheet of aluminum and bending it and banging it up and then using that as the liner that the concrete is cast against, [it] creates the ideal acoustical texture to mitigate flutter echo and diffuse the sound in the space.”

Once perfected, the team took their creation to the rest of the rehearsal spaces. While they met their goal acoustically, the accomplishment is twofold. The fluidity provided by the crinkle concrete is not only aesthetically appealing but provides a metaphorical distinction of the fluidity in the arts that The REACH itself represents.

“When you see this texture, especially in the Justice Forum, it’s immaterial,” McVoy explains. “On the one hand, it [appears] carved out of solid rock. And then on the other hand, it seems as light as folded paper. And then, especially in the Justice Forum where we’re lighting it right along the surface – we’re just raking it with light – the textures [are] particularly pronounced and immaterial. In fact, it’s a concrete structural wall but it feels like a folded texture of light.”

Though the Center’s original space will always stand as the iconic monument to its namesake’s legacy and commitment to the arts, the fluid and flexible notions brought forth in The REACH – both in structure and ideology – surely show the creative future Kennedy advocated for as the catalyst of change in our modern times. 

THE ART

Longtime DC residents will be greeted by a familiar figure when entering the grounds of The REACH: Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes, on loan from The Hirshhorn. The 1996 sculpture is just one of three outdoor sculptures that, along with many other pieces of art indoors, were selected with the help of Dr. Elizabeth Broun.

“I’ve been a longtime admirer of the Kennedy Center and the role they play – not just in Washington but across the country – to encourage the performing arts,” says Broun, The REACH’s visual arts advisor. “It’s an organization with a deep sense of mission and a real commitment to the idea that the arts can really express American life.”

Broun, who served for many years as the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and retired in 2016, says her involvement in The REACH is a perfect way for her to stay engaged with the arts and work with one of the most prestigious, fabulous arts organizations in America.

She took Kennedy’s legacy as a powerful arts advocate to heart while working with artists, museums and donors to adorn the space. She notes that while a connection to the Kennedy administration was not a necessary requirement for inclusion, there are some beautiful connections to his life that make an appearance at The REACH – namely in the case of painter Sam Gilliam and sculptor Joel Shapiro.

Gilliam’s work, which Broun describes as “lyrical and musical,” drapes across the interior space. Shapiro’s sculpture almost appears to “pirouette” across the lawn, and she envisions it becoming something of an iconic symbol of The REACH due to its visibility from the river, the highway and within the landscape of the building.

“[Gilliam] is really the internationally acclaimed dean of Washington’s artists. He’s long been affiliated with Washington. He came to the city in 1962 during the Kennedy administration, so we liked that reference. We liked that Joel Shapiro was actually in the third cohort of Peace Corps volunteers in India. The Kennedy legacy really does live on and is a very active component in the arts.”

In working to bring this incredible array of American art to The REACH, Broun’s hopes lie in the idea that patrons will see the multidimensional impacts of the arts that harken back to the Kennedy legacy it so gracefully pays tribute to.

“People mostly don’t think of the Kennedy Center as being about art, except for maybe that great big bronze head of Kennedy that’s in the foyer. I hope it makes them sort of reflect a little bit that yes, this is a great center for all of the arts in America. It’s encouraging the arts of every type. It’s comprehensive in the same way that President Kennedy’s vision for the arts was to be a beacon and related to our democracy. It’s about public spaces and public art. I hope they respond to all of that.”

For more on the work of Chris McVoy and Steven Holl Architects, go to www.stevenholl.com. Visit www.reach.kennedy-center.org for continuing announcements about upcoming programming at The REACH. 

Photos: Trent Johnson

DC’s Mixed-Media Master Kelly Towles

“It’s like a cave in here. It’s quiet and dark, and I get to just go nuts. This is my world.”

Kelly Towles is giving a tour of his O Street lair. The mixed-media artist is completely at home, donning an all black outfit consisting of a POW! WOW! Shirt, black shorts and a backward cap, which makes him look like a retired skateboarder. His studio space is a candyland for artists; there are 3D printers carving away at black blocks of plastic, a brick wall mimicking DC alleyways carrying his takes on Japanese subway graffiti and a warehouse backroom with literally hundreds of spray paint canisters. In its corners you’ll find neatly shelved sculptures, hanging LED neon signs and unopened boxes of, presumably, art materials sitting on tables.

The homegrown DC creator spends six days a week here, bouncing from project to project, painting, sculpting, breaking, fixing, designing, thinking and, if there’s time, eating.

“There’s nobody that tells me what to do, besides my wife,” Towles says. “No one is saying make this or that. I come up with my own direction and my own drive, and it’s awesome, but it’s also very selfish. If I want to paint purple elephants for the rest of my life, that’s what I want to do, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of my community.”

Towles references his relationship with the District multiple times over the course of an hour. This is not lip service. His murals decorate several corners of the city, for private and public entities. He’s the creative director for DC’s iteration of POW! WOW!, a two week mural fest every  May. If not for his relationship to the city where he initially dipped his toe in graffiti, he knows he wouldn’t have a studio of his own. He wouldn’t be traveling to Los Angeles for a gallery in November. He wouldn’t hop on a plane to Japan for inspiration. Hell, he might not even be an artist.

“I love DC. I really love the city. I love working here.”

Grafitti, Metal + Anime

Towles’ childhood years were spent in Australia, where he was surrounded by a desert landscape. Sitting on one of his black couches, he recounts influences from those early years: the slapstick silliness of Monty Python and anime characters like Astro Boy, but he was most captivated by metal music’s go-to illustrator Brian Schroeder, aka Pushead, known for his graphic depictions of cartoonish ghouls and iconic skulls.

“I think for me, the real intrigue where I remember art affecting my life was album covers,” Towles says. “His stuff really engaged me into that type of art. I was a weird kid anyways, it’s what I invested my time in. I was never doing sports or anything like that.”

In 1988, his family moved to DC. Fast forward a few years and you could find the teenage Towles spray painting buildings under the cover of darkness. Though he claims his first forays into street art were “terrible,” the concept of beautifying his new home with goofy characters via paint were unshakeable.

“[My career in art] happened organically,” Towles says. “When I was studying for my BFA at [the University of] Maryland, I’d always fall back to characters and spray paint, graffiti. I had a funny moment at my final show when a professor told me, ‘These are cute but they’ll never sell.’

That professor was wrong. After years of supplementing his art via bartending or graphic design gigs, so many people were pitching him projects and buying his work that eventually he had to make his craft his full time job, ie obsession.

“Working with Apple, NPR, the National Zoo, across the board, I’m having a ‘What the f–k? This is amazing’ feeling,” he says. “You have to kill yourself. You have to bust your ass. There’s no advice I can give other than bust your ass. Constantly work, because if you don’t, it shows. I have five shows coming up, and even if I didn’t, I’d make a show just so I’d have something to work toward.”

Experimentation + Implementation

Anyone can say “work hard” or “bust ass,” but these are so often overused catch phrases that don’t mean an iota without quantifiable evidence. However, when Towles throws these edicts around in his studio, it’s palpable. His work is tangible, physical and apparent. You can walk to several buildings in NoMa and literally peer up at giant pieces he’s had two hands in.

Before unboxing canvases, plugging tools or breaking down materials, he busts ass searching for a theme of inspiration. A through line that connects a series of sculptures or murals, an unmistakable fascination.

“It’s always a project on experimentation,” Towles says as he pulls out sculptures from a collection of boxes that were resting in a rolling crate. “Just attack. Come up with a narrative. A lot of young artists ask me how I do it, and I tell them to just pick one theme to build a show around. If you’re really into Golden Girls, go with that.”

A lot of artwork adorning walls on all sides in his studio are linked by his adoration for Japanese culture. Through a Crunchyroll subscription, visits to Singapore and China, and trips to Tokyo over the past four years, you can see the narrative Towles is fixated on. The sculptures he’s prepared for November’s Los Angeles show include Air Jordans made of ramen noodles, a take on Japanese manholes and a curry rice skull.

His spirited artwork has also garnered a reputation for him locally, allowing him to avoid solely relying on individual pieces to bring home the bacon. He’s been approached by bars, restaurants and corporate companies throughout the city, as clients are drawn to his unique thematics.

“I love it when people want my work,” Towles says. “It’s a hard line, there are commissions where people want me to do a luxury pattern, but what I’ll do is create a character to be enveloped by that pattern.”

The characters he’s referencing appear in a majority of murals, paintings and illustrations. Their appearance is what I can only describe as a cross between the Gorillaz cartoons fused with anime’s penchant for unbridled personification, each carrying features unique to Towles’ sensibilities as a creator.

“I try to keep my mind open about everything,” Towles says. “I know I’m not a photorealistic artist. I love playing to my strengths, which are sloppy, fast and positive.”

DC Embraces Street Art

“It was the wild, wild West,” Towles says, describing the city’s graffiti scene in the 90s. “I’m just happy to be a contributor. In the early 2000s, there were eight or nine galleries on 14th Street and you’d jump to like ten different shows. There’s always been an artsy community, but then the recession hit and it kind of dissipated a bit.”

Towles talks about DC’s scene with a gleam in his eye. It’s a point of pride for him to involve the city in any capacity when discussing art and the inspiration behind his works. The city has gone through ebbs and flows of triumph  and turmoil, but creatives will always inhabit the District.

“Public art and installations are on the rise, but to do those big giant pieces, you need investments,” Towles says. “It’s becoming more prevalent here because people have proven that it works. Think about the Beach exhibit at the Building Museum, it brought in droves of people.”

Early in his career, Towles collaborated with artist Jasper Wong, the founder of the first ever POW! WOW! in his native state of Hawaii. The 2011 festival built on public murals and installations proved a slam-dunk success, which allowed it to spread across the globe, from Tokyo to Taipei to DC, where Towles has pulled strings as creative director since 2014.

“It’s great because it’s accessible to everyone,” Towles says. “People know it’s there every year, people plan trips based around it. It blows my mind that people are willing to do that for murals.”

Planning for POW! WOW! is a year-round task, as securing spaces in NoMa and funding for each year’s diverse group of artists takes a tremendous amount of work. Like all concepts Towles attaches himself to, he busts his ass, grits his teeth and gets to work, all to contribute toward uplifting DC.

“Murals are visual messages, and nine times out of 10 if you put something shitty up there about death, doom and gloom, it’s not going to do it,” Towles says. “I want to do something that people will come back to. That’s a cool thing to make someone visually understand.”

To follow along with Towles creative exploits, visit www.kellytowles.com and follow him on social media @kellytowles. For more information about POW! WOW!, visit www.powwowworldwide.com.

Marlee Milton, Kelcie Glass and Nicole Garder // Photo: Trent Johnson

GIRLAAA Collective Provides Safe Space and Creative Platform for Black Women

The subtle nuances of pronunciation never cease to amaze me. I’m sitting across from Kelcie Glass, Nicole Garder and Marlee Milton as they take turns saying the colloquialism that inspired their collective’s name. “Girlaaa” is a common greeting in the District, one generally used to express excitement. But Glass quickly points out that it can also have a “Girl, chill” vibe with just the slightest variance in tone. 

And just like its name, GIRLAAA’s ethos follows suit. While chatting with one-third of the nine-piece group’s powerhouse of talented women at Eaton Hotel’s flagship restaurant American Son, it becomes quickly apparent to me that every action the collective takes is meant to champion women of color and their accomplishments – but also challenge them by digging into substantive content and getting real. 

Over the past year, GIRLAAA has expanded from throwing women-centric parties around the city to hosting 15 killer events including three activations at the Hirshhorn, creating a biweekly podcast recorded at Eaton and coworking space 202Creates, and growing their tightknit crew to include visual artists, DJs, producers, hosts, programmers and more. Each one-hour episode of the “1-800-GIRLAAA” podcast includes interviews with local luminaries and a DJ set highlighting edgy sounds from strong women. 

Glass, a marketing and outreach guru, Garder, an ethically sourced jewelry consultant and documentary filmmaker, and Milton, a full-time musician with an artist development side hustle, walked me through what the collective means to them, why supporting the area they grew up in is critical, and why smoking a joint with Rihanna would be lit.

On Tap: What was the evolution from events to the “1-800-GIRLAAA” podcast?
Nicole Garder: Dominique [Wells] was the creator of GIRLAAA, and she reached out to women in different creative spaces to come together. We started out as a party and then from that, we saw an even bigger need to give a platform to all women in creative spaces.
Kelcie Glass: Then the podcast was born from that. We were doing GIRLAAA activations. Eaton reached out to us before we even thought about doing a podcast and said, “Hey, we want GIRLAAA to do a podcast here.” Nicole had a lot of production [and] programming experience. I do too, and I can also host. Marlee can DJ and also host really well. We record in multiple spaces now, but it was born from being asked just based on the premise of the collective.

OT: What was your original goal in hosting the parties? Who did you want to bring together?
KG: It started as having a safe space for women, and we also wanted to highlight women of color who don’t always get a platform to show their talents. The party was cool but now we can do different interviews [and] live events with the podcast, [and have] real substantive conversations. Our most recent party was on the rooftop of Eaton for Women’s History Month, and that was crazy. 

OT: What percentage of your focus now is on the podcast versus hosting events?
NG: I would say we want to focus on both, with the emphasis on the podcast and doing live events. It’s really about engaging people online but also doing that in real life. 

OT: How do you pick the music for each episode?
Marlee Milton: Really, I just go with the vibe. I know our regular sets and parties are really centered around women in music and just that strong sound – like how Insecure has those really edgy, catchy, striking songs from women – that’s something I really try to hone in on. Just a good vibe, a good time. 

OT: What’s the creative process for picking your guests?
NG: It’s really figuring out what’s happening in our local community and then branching out toward the entertainment topics [affecting] women of color. That’s our target audience. We have different segments focusing on who is really inspiring us – women in power. It’s very important to use our platform to share with other people, and that’s also how we go about finding talent to [have] those deeper conversations.
KG: We hadn’t even started yet and [journalist and former Wizards cohost] Gia Peppers was like, “Yeah, I want to come on and do it.” We had Janea West [on the show]. She has this [DC-based] web series called Grown, which is really, really great. Nicole and I just went to Essence Fest where we popped up on Lena Waithe and AlunaGeorge. We’ll go where needed, especially if we have really great content. These women are huge right now. The concept is a good enough pitch for people to really engage with us.

OT: Any guests you’re dying to have on?
NG: People with big, expansive personalities and bringing those people to our local community, which is so important for me.
KG: I would say Tracee Ellis Ross [and] NAO. Obviously, Rihanna. I just want to smoke some weed with Rihanna and talk shit.
NG: Same. [laughs]
KG: I think she’d be down with the concept, too. That would be lit.
MM: I really want to speak to a lot of the independent women in the industry and a lot of the black pop and black punk artists [who are] women. I really want to get their perspective and process and experience.

OT: What about a local guest, maybe someone under the radar?
NG: I would love to have a conversation with April George of April + VISTA. I love the texture of her voice, but also she’s really focused on the issues that are happening in the DC space in terms of supporting creatives and what that really looks like.
KG: I’m leaning a little more political. I know some young women of color who are running for local office, but also national figures who are located here. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez follows us on Instagram because she saw our installation that included pieces of her by [visual artist, illustrator, animator and GIRLAAA member] Trap Bob. I would love to sit down with her and have a conversation. Also, I would like to bring the Mayor [on for a] women-centric conversation, but also just [to ask her] about what she thinks about the culture of DC right now and its trajectory and what we can do to build legislation around maintaining it. 


GIRLAAA MUST-HAVES
Great energy
Creative women in our circle
Tenacity
Bold personalities
Dedication to feminism
Love + appreciation for the native DMV culture


OT: What about event wish lists? What’s a space you think could really be a good platform or bring in the right people to highlight your mission?
KG: A lot of the spaces that we’ve been coming into have been to bring in this energy. They realize that they are lacking or have a void in terms of black women or creatives in their spaces. We are in talks with some major theaters right now. It’d be fun to do a podcast and then a party afterwards [at 9:30 Club].
NG: In the film sphere of things, definitely a screening, having those conversations with the directors.
NG: I would also love to do a women’s conference, specifically.
KG: A conference would be great. A women-centric one would be really cool – and regularly, annually. I would also want to venture into more of the political space. We’re potentially supporting a cannabis-centric event coming up in September that is about recreational cannabis, but also the business of that and how black and brown people get into those conversations. 

OT: What goals do you have for GIRLAAA – both the podcast and the scope of events – in the next year? Do you view it as more of a creative outlet or a transition to where you want to be full-time?
KG: We definitely want to travel more and connect with people in different cities. [And] more robust programming with larger artists. I think that’s feasible, it’s just the time and energy. [If we were] full-time, we could actually do more robust things and have these big artists come and do a whole weekend of events and things like that.
MM: I definitely see us being the go-to group for bringing our perspective and audience to events and programming in general. I really want to see a GIRLAAA festival. To me, all of us have come together for this mission and it’s full-time already even though we’re juggling so many things.
NG: That’s what I love most about the collective: if one person is there, we’re all there. 

OT: How did you come up with the name? What does it mean to each of you?
KG: Girlaaa is a slang in DC. Let Marlee say it.
MM: Girlaaa. It’s like, a greeting in a way.
KG: It can be a greeting. It’s basically like, “Girl, chill,” or “Girl, yes.” Either way, it depends on the context.
NG: It’s all about the tone.
KG: It depends on the context and the tone.

OT: What context and tone do you prefer?
MM: Excited, sisterly, hyping you up…
KG: I like the more questionable one. [All laugh] The GIRLAAA collective is definitely the hype energy one.

OT: What are some of your favorite things to do in DC when you’re not working or podcasting?
MM: Dance. I love to dance [at] U Street Music Hall, Eighteenth Street Lounge, Velvet Lounge, Cloak & Dagger, Sotto – so many places.
KG: I like to go to concerts [at] 9:30, Anthem, U Hall. I love concerts and music – very music-centric.
NG: I would say definitely concerts but also being one with nature. I spend a lot of time in Georgetown, so kayaking and paddleboarding.  

Listen to the “1-800-GIRLAAA” podcast at www.mixcloud.com/GIRLAAA. Learn more about GIRLAAA at www.domo.world/girlaaa and follow the collective on Instagram @girlaaa.world.

Photo: Refik Anadol, courtesy of ARTECHOUSE

Exploration Of DC’s Powerful, Impactful Art

In today’s social climate, art is the epitome of pushing the conversation forward. With many adversities dividing our communities, the use of mediums like design, sculpture and film allow the world to see a perspective through another person’s lens. Our nation’s capital is the epicenter of politics, diversity and community, so it’s no surprise that the District’s art reflects the same. New exhibits and installations are being created to highlight civil rights, social justice and political reform addressing the huge gap in peace and prosperity. We handpicked some of the summer exhibits and public works of art making a lasting impact in and around the city.

Photo: Tex Williams, courtesy of Hirshhorn

Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green)

The Hirshhorn has always been known for its focus on contemporary art, inspiring people to step back and take the time to think over what is being presented. The same case follows here for “Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green).” Through July 24, the exhibit from Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija is encouraging visitors to consider many sensory feelings – especially because curry from Beau Thai in Mount Pleasant is served as you watch the mural appear in front of you. We spoke with Dr. Mark Beasley, the Hirshhorn’s curator of media and performance art, about bringing this interactive exhibit to the museum and working with Tiravanija.

On Tap: What attracted you to Tiravanija’s work and why was it important for it to be showcased?
Mark Beasley:
[He’s] somewhat of a figurehead for the Thai artists that appeared in the 90s. He creates a social engagement with the audience. He facilitates a social space within galleries. The work is about activism and protest culture. It connected very well with the history of the city but also had two key threads: the serving of food as an art piece.

OT: What was the process like to bring this show to life?
MB:
The process in general was two-fold: food and drawings. With the food, we looked to find a collaborator in the city: restaurant Beau Thai. They worked with Rirkrit to come up with a recipe that he was happy with and seemed authentic to him. The 18 mural artists working for and with Rirkrit are drawing these images taken from the mainstream press of protests over the last 40 years both in Bangkok and Washington. At any time, there are [up to] three artists in this space drawing directly onto the walls.

OT: How does serving curry play into the overall sensory experience?
MB:
It is another flavor and ingredient in the room. It sets up a space of sociability. It is an immediate hook. You go and get food and sit, and then you are in a room of drawings so the discussion stems from there. In terms of sensory [experience], [it’s] very much this other vocabulary that most of us are not used to thinking of. We are not used to thinking through those textures or what that means to the space or a room. It brings part of Thailand into this space, into this museum.

“Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green)” runs through July 24. Go to www.hirshhorn.si.edu for details.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: Independence Avenue and 7th Street in NW, DC; www.hirshhorn.si.edu

Photo: Griselda San Martin

“The Warm of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement”

“The Warm of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement” at the Phillips Collection through September 22, presents a group of global artists whose work asks urgent questions about the experiences and conceptions of migration and the refugee crisis that many countries are living through. Through the lens of installations, videos and paintings, viewers are shown real and artistically created geographies creating tales of migration, while adding historical elements on top of them. Global artists Richard Wright, Isabel Wilkerson and Jacob Lawrence are featured in this exhibit, conveying the powerful message of migration that affects our world today. We chatted with curator Massimiliano Gioni, who gave us his interpretation of this impactful exhibit.

On Tap: How did you get started in this line of business? Why did you want to become a curator of art?
Massimiliano Gioni:
I was a teenager when I started getting interested in contemporary art and gradually, I wanted to spend my life being surrounded by it. Around 1990, when I entered the world of art professionally, I didn’t think curation was a profession. For a long time, I thought I would’ve had another life that eventually would’ve led me to art. I struggled for a while within the art community, but fortunately and beyond my wildest imagination, everything fell into place.

OT: What makes a piece of art something worth showcasing?
MG: 
It’s a combination of numerous things. On one hand, it’s the effect that it feels just right, that anything you do to it won’t compromise it, that nothing could be added to or subtracted from it, [that it’s] personal and individual to the point of being unconventional. On the other hand, it’s endlessly incomparable because every time you return to it, you learn something new and in return, you learn something new about yourself.

OT: Is there a specific impression you would like viewers to have of “The Warmth of Other Suns”?
MG:
There are three central questions in the show that they address. One is the representation of pain and misery. The second is the question of documentary and the repercussions – the way in which we can claim to tell the truth or represent a truth. And the third is the relationship between the individuals and the masses – between self and the multitudes of self.

OT: What inspired you to get involved with this exhibit? How has your background influenced your choice in curation?
MG:
This is my second show. I did a show in Italy two years ago called “The Restless Arms.” In the summer in Italy, we are used to seeing thousands of civilians die crossing the Mediterranean and in a sense, I felt that we had some kind of responsibility to engage in this issue through this exhibition. One of the reasons I went [with this exhibition] is to basically say, “No more.” Also, because of the diversity within this show, it presents a much more vibrant and open conversation [about] the multicultural idea of society in contemporary art.

OT: With the topic of migration at the center of this exhibit, what kind of realities have you faced curating these works of arts?
MG: 
I think the interesting aspect is that we are looking at certain realities as they are constructed through images – how contemporary art is addressing the concept of truthfulness and accuracy, and how images can contract reality. What I hope is that people will go through this exhibition and understand that the people we call migrants are not so different from ourselves and our own families.

Tickets are $12; exhibit runs through September 22. Learn more about “The Warmth of Other Suns” at www.phillipscollection.org.

The Phillips Collection: 1600 21st St. NW, DC; www.phillipscollection.org

Photo: courtesy of Torpedo Factory

Julia Kwon’s “More Than A Body”

“More Than A Body,” at the Torpedo Factory through August 4, represents Asian femininity within modern society. Enduring objectifications as a Korean woman, local artist Julia Kwon uses the art of textiles to address and open the conversation of cultural propriety within the United States. Her use of authentic Korean materials pays homage to her culture and allows her to focus on influences such as globalism and totalitarianism. Chosen from nearly 130 artists, Kwon’s exhibit highlights the fusion of authenticity and appropriations. Panelists Sandy Guttman, Michael Matason and Terrence Nicholson played a huge role in putting this powerful exhibit together. Before visiting, we caught up with Kwon to learn more about her experience creating this exhibit.

On Tap: How has your background influenced your work?
Julia Kwon:
I decided to study art seriously and make sense of the world through creating art. My work is directly influenced by the society that I live in. I discuss my experiences of being seen differently in the U.S. based on my gender and ethnicity. I also reference current sociopolitical events through the inclusion of contemporary logos to challenge the expectation of cultural purity.

OT: What inspires you as an artist?
JK:
Artmaking is the struggle to better understand myself, the world I live in, and what it means to live fully and justly. I am continuing to challenge myself to think of more effective ways to expose the problematic constructions of Asian femininity within the U.S. context.

OT: What objectification have you faced as a Korean woman?
JK:
I have experienced discrimination based on the way I look, which includes larger, systemic inequalities as well as microaggressions – whether that was being subjected to others gazes or racist and sexist comments. I’ve also felt the pressure to prove or perform cultural purity and authenticity, even from well-meaning allies.

OT: Why did you choose textiles to convey your message?
JK:
I became involved with textile art quite organically as it allowed me to effectively talk about my experiences of being seen differently based on my gender and ethnicity. I am drawing inspiration from Korean textiles because it is specifically Korean, yet the abstract designs allow the space for complexity, nuance and ambiguity. I use traditional Korean silk as well as fabrics that were created from around the world and found here in the U.S. to question the idea of authenticity and shift the focus to the influences of globalism, transnationalism and cultural hybridity.

OT: What would you say to other women about handling these kinds of adversities?
JK: I aim to present my specific point of view and experiences as a Korean-American woman, as well as to spark conversations and position us to experience a more sweeping glance at issues regarding gender, ethnicity and other categories. I want women and other people who have had similar experiences to know they are not alone in the struggle to be a distinct and multifaceted human being.

OT: If there is one thing that you would like your audience to take away from your work, what would it be and why?
JK:
Although they may be initially drawn to the work for its vivid colors and lush materiality, the content of the work seems to be what ultimately resonates with them. I have had viewers interpret the positions of the figures very differently and I welcome diverse readings of my work. The fabrics are not only covering, blocking and suffocating, but also protecting, hiding and mystifying the body. The figures are both burdened by the expectation of authenticity yet free to be comfortably themselves behind the constructed façade.

“More Than A Body” runs through August 4. Learn more at www.torpedofactory.org and about Kwon at www.juliakwon.com.

Torpedo Factory Art Center: 105 N. Union St. Alexandria, VA; www.torepedofactory.org


“Art in Action”
The Library of Congress hosts many historic and awe-inspiring exhibits of art, including “Art in Action.” This particular exhibit feels quite crucial to recognizing events throughout history in a more fun and engaging way; presented in an easily digestible format, it brings together those taking in the art and the world that they live in. Some notable artists featured include Shepard Fairey, Pablo Picasso and Helen Zughaib. Runs through August 17. Library of Congress: 101 Independence Ave. SE, DC; www.loc.gov

“Chicago Titan”
One might not think of finding a large Romanesque sculpture outside of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, but if you venture a bit from the city, you’ll find one nestled in the hustle and bustle of Rosslyn. “Chicago Titan” is a large sculpture created by Ray Kaskey, known for his large-scale civic art pieces that follow Greek and Renaissance themes. Look for it the next time you find yourself in Arlington. 1530 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA; www.rosslynva.org

DC Mural Walking Tour
DC is often recognized as a place full of monuments and history, but it has become so much more. The DC Mural Walking Tour has become a staple, taking locals a step further into the variety of public murals in the surrounding wards and neighborhoods of the city. This tour makes the art both accessible and informative to the public and has much to offer expressively. Check the official website for more information on where to get tickets and what areas these tours start in. www.dcmurals.org

“I Am…Contemporary Women Artists of Africa”
The National Museum of African Art is putting a twist on their upcoming exhibit, featuring 28 female artists. While addressing topics like racism, identity and politics, it also shines a light on women empowerment and the African experience. This diverse approach to contemporary art opens versatile perspectives within the creative community. Runs through March 2020. National Museum of African Art: 950 Independence Ave. SW, DC; https://africa.si.edu

“Infinite Space”
We live with a sense that there will one day be an end, but we rarely stop to think of the infinite possibilities. “Infinite Space” reflects the concept wherein visitors can open their minds to endless ideas and opportunities, as well as the transformative ways of man and machine. The exhibit invites you to look through the lens of a machine and how it perceives the world as a human. If you’re looking for an experience that will both open and expand your mind, this is for you. Tickets are $16. Runs through September 2. ARTECHOUSE: 1238 Maryland Ave. SW, DC; www.dc.artechouse.com

“Lightweave”
One may not think of an underpass as having the ability to showcase a magnificent work of art, but “Lightweave” is a fun, interactive experience for everyone. This piece also brings the city to life because it takes all the varieties of sounds in NoMa and turns them into beautiful LED lights. “Lightweave” fully showcases the interactivity and accessibility of the city in order to bring a standard underpass to life. L Street Underpass: 2nd Street in NE, DC; www.futureforms.us/lightweave

“ReCOVERing the Classics”
Workhouse Art Center’s interactive exhibit showcasing redesigned book covers will have you reminiscing about the Scholastic Book Fairs of your childhood. This exhibit captures the importance of what is sometimes lost in modern literature. Runs through August 4. Workhouse Art Center: 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, VA;  www.workhousearts.org

“Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGTBQ Rights Movement”
Honoring the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the Newseum pays tribute to the LGBTQ civil rights movement by highlighting the trials and tribulations that sparked the revelation of LGBTQ First Amendment freedoms. With the use of artifacts, images and historic publications, “Rise Up” offers a glimpse inside this fight for equality. Runs through December 31. Newseum: 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.newseum.org

“Solaris Shelter for The Next Cold War”
Critically acclaimed artist Mark Kelner uses his artistic creation to make a fun, interactive experience at Culture House DC (formerly Blind Whino). His pop-up exhibit addresses the tension of war propaganda in modern America, and his funny sneer at modern advertisements creates a unique approach to using art as a way to address sometimes uncomfortable issues. Runs through July 7. Culture House DC: 700 Delaware Ave. SW, DC; www.culturehousedc.org

Fiberglass animals by Kusama Yayoi // Photo: courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Animals In Japanese Culture Come to Life at National Gallery of Art

“Something old and something new” is what comes to mind when thinking about the National Gallery of Art’s new exhibition, The Life of Animals in Japanese Art.

Animals are the main thematic element, represented through mediums ranging from sculptures and fashion gowns to paintings and statues. There are also sculptures, couture gowns and other more interactive features, all depicting animals as a through line.

The exhibit contains more than 300 pieces of artwork, spanning from the fifth century to present day and was curated by Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Robert T. Singer and Chiba City Museum’s of Art Masatomo Kawai, in consultation with other Japanese art historians.

Because the collection focuses on one particular theme in a wide variety, visitors should expect a certain degree the desire to revisit, as the scope of the works likely requires a couple of views for one to fully grasp each artistic concept.

A piece that caught and kept my attention were three fiberglass cat statues by artist Kusama Yayoi; nestled just outside the main exhibit’s entrance. At first glance, the cats reminisce of figurines an aging cat lady might use as living room decor, but upon a deeper look, I pictured myself as a kid collecting stuffed animals similar to Yayoi’s aesthetic. The polka-dot statues make a very loud and playful statement with vibrant colors.

The main entrance opens up into a section on the 12 Zodiac animals from the Edo period. Here, wooden plaques with paintings of each animal were displayed. For those who don’t know, Japan follows the Chinese astrological system, in that certain animals are represented by birth years rather than birth months. In particular, learning about astrology and the characteristics along with the subject has always been an interest of mine, so this piece struck me on a personal level.

The entire collection ends with one of my favorites; a room of modern couture gowns by fashion designer Issey Miyake. Many art collections have fashion pieces but not like Miyake’s pleated designs. The dresses are displayed with mannequins on a runway-like platform, and I imagined the figurines coming to life by how they were positioned; in running stances as well as typical fashion poses.

Issey Miyake’s gowns // Photo: courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Visitors will be able to visually comprehend how Miyake’s inspiration of nature and animals flows through each pleat; with inspiration from starfish, monkeys and birds.

For more information about The Life of Animals In Japanese Art, visit here. The exhibition runs through August 18 at the National Gallery of Art’s East building.

National Gallery of Art: Constitution Avenue and 6th Street, NW, DC; 202-737-4215; www.nga.gov

Vintage Tea Party // Photo: Dominque Fierro

Different Artists, Influences Come Together With One Voice

One Voice, an exhibition featuring numerous DC LGBTQ artists created an inclusive space for activists, art lovers and pride month participants for an intimate experience at the Kimpton Carlyle Hotel. Creatives like Tom Hill, Jorge Carceres, Dominique Fierro and Wayson Jones each displayed individual works that illustrate their viewpoints in the selection. 

The exhibit runs through September 2, and opened at the beginning of June for Pride Month. Though the art is free to see, there is a $5 suggested donation for The Trevor Project.

Walking into the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel near Dupont Circle, you’re immediately greeted by works from Hill, both bright and captivating:  “Scratch Where It Itches, In a Whirl,” draws you into the building, until suddenly you’re into the main lobby area, where an entire room is utilized. Throughout, each artist is generously given their own separate gazing area, which allows the viewer to better take in and interpret the message behind the work. 

A DC native, Hill has always been an advocate for civil rights. From a young age, he’s been driven to bring peace and prosperity to those fighting for equality, which has given him a unique outlook on life, one that eventually brought him to his career in art. He’s specifically interested in what it means to be “queer,” in the modern era. Hill uses male figures, accents of glitter and striking acrylic. He draws his audience in with the intention to question the life of a man living in the gay community. With bold lettering and their own individual message, he defines it as sublime and multi-dimensional. Particularly placed within the exhibit, it casts light on the depiction of the queer man. 

As you make a lap around the exhibit, you also run into the work of Fierro, who uses photographic depictions of vulnerability. The black and white images of “Vintage Tea Party and Raw” have dire emotion, where you see women covered by shadows who appear timid and irrational. The presentation provides no particular direction, you observe in caution as though they were in the room with you. Fierro uses uncomfortable scenes to truly captivate her impression: their souls and she uses photos to show their world.  

Lastly, Wayson Jones places an element of surprise within his gallery. Surrounded by vibrancy, his luminous and eerie paintings rein over the room, stricken with curiosity an observer could even question the reality behind the creations. Does it relate to his identity? How does it portray to being in the LGBTQ community? And what type of impressions would this make on the everyday person?  But as he exclaims, the art is up for interpretation. His portrayal of black shaded figures within a white materialistic background; “Ancestor, Death Threat, Boxed In,” abides by his idea of a distaste for the mistreatment of his community. Members of the black and LGBTQ community have faced years of discrimination and supreme adversities.

These are all very different artists with unique influences who came together for this one night to help form a powerful message with a variety of perspectives influenced by nostalgic sentiments, nature and civil rights. Though each are strong and loud enough on their own, the impact of these works under one roof is undeniably heightened as they intersect and compliment to form “One Voice.” 

“One Voice” runs through September 2.  Learn More about the exhibit at here.

Kimpton Carlyle Hotel: 1731 New Hampshire Ave. NW, DC; 202-234-3200; www.carlylehoteldc.com