This month, the brain trust behind the 2-year-old Arcata arts collective/alternative space/social experiment known as the Sanctuary debuts its 2015 Card Show, which brings together unique sets of playing cards created by 12 mostly local visual artists. Its Friday opening is the latest renewal of a card-themed event series initiated in Eureka about 15 years ago by local arts collective Empire Squared, founded in 2001. So it represents a kind of supergroup collaboration involving members of two local arts powerhouses — one established, the other relatively new.
The Sanctuary, an arts nonprofit headquartered in a former women's club on Arcata's J Street, celebrates its second anniversary on Dec. 22, "on the solstice," according to recently appointed arts director Cyrus Smith.
Sanctuary founders Katie Belknap and Solomon Lowenstein III describe the space as "a playground for creative action and artful living ... a space dedicated to making and experiencing art in community." The collective produces gallery exhibitions, education programs, community events and a very active live music program. Resources include a printmaking lab, ceramics studio, food garden, communal kitchen, metal workshop, textiles workshop and stage. "If you drew the Venn diagram of Sanctuary people and Empire Squared people, there'd be a lot of overlap," Smith observed.
The 2015 Card Show includes work by Empire Squared co-founders Donovan Clark, Rachel Grusin, Jeremy Hara and Forest Stearns, as well as works by the Sanctuary's co-founder Katie Belknap, its print lab manager Katy Warner, painter Brandon White and Arcata native Luke Forsyth.
This is a homecoming of sorts for Smith, who exhibited in one of the first card shows in 2003 and has contributed work this year as well. Smith, a Humboldt State University grad and area resident between 1998 and 2004, recently returned to Humboldt to direct the Sanctuary's visual arts programming.
This show stays true to the playful spirit of past incarnations, even as it opens the concept to new interpretations. Show Organizers Belknap and Smith have staged not just an exhibition but a whimsical multimedia event cycle that goes well beyond the expectations evoked by the no-frills title.
Pieces challenge ideas about the dynamics of play. Cards become the point of departure for flights of fancy that surpass the limits of the usual materials and formats. The mood is celebratory, and the overall effect might be described as whimsical-bordering-on-anarchic.
Minnesota printer Lauren Kinney has made a deck of cards that features hard-edged forms in tie-die rainbow colors against black backgrounds. The result is both louche and accessibly fabulous.
Jeremy Hara's card set features graffiti-inspired images featuring multiple levels of inscription. Hara has developed multiple, graffiti-writing alter egos, and here he turns them loose to play.
Patrick Vincent's cards approach delicate unicorn imagery with an arch sensibility. Image complexity evolves with card value: lower value cards feature standard-issue unicorns while higher value cards feature multi-horned mythological beasts that become more frightening and less familiar as they grow increasingly complex.
Local farmer, artist and Sanctuary board member Carissa Clark contributes 52 small 3-D assemblages — hard to play poker with, but easy on the eyes. Built around blocks of repurposed wood, these pocket-sized sculptures feature eclectically sourced materials, including collaged images, bones, bits of playing cards and the artist's own baby teeth.
Perhaps the most unconventional playing cards featured here are in the "interactive musical board game" created by musicians Daniel Nickerson and Jonathan Kipp, a.k.a. the Sanctuary Furniture Ensemble. This highly social, genre-busting multimedia extravaganza promises to spur viewers' creativity by blurring the usual boundaries between audience and performer.
Game cards issue instructions that refer to sound installations located around the space, and players move from one station to another. At each station, participants interact with other players to activate prerecorded music: Guitar amps, hand recorders and old CD boomboxes play important roles.
"All the pre-recorded tracks are based on the same chord structure and melody, stretched out and distorted," Smith explained. This shared structure ensures that when tracks are overlaid, it's unlikely to be complete cacophony. Still, serendipity is going to play a major role in these proceedings.
Since the game is all about improvisation and spontaneity, it is impossible to predict how participants will order and layer the sounds, and impossible to predict the character of the resulting music. Players on Friday night can expect a three-hour-long, chance-driven sound event that will be unpredictable, unrepeatable and totally unique. "I can tell you that the I Ching has been a source of inspiration," Smith laughed. "And also balloons are going to play an important role."
Card Show revives the improvisational spirit of multimedia art movements of the 1960s, including Fluxus events and "happenings." But the curators' emphasis on participation, collectivity and local community seems highly contemporary — it's in keeping with the "think globally, act locally" ethos of new regionalism sparking artists' groups in American cities small and large since the dawn of the digital era.
The show also highlights the hallmarks of the Sanctuary's approach to arts programming: collaboration, community engagement, DIY aesthetics and a commitment to innovation founded in self-sufficiency and craft. According to Smith, the key element of the institution's mission is "keeping things local. We are always mindful of the need to engage with and respond to the immediate community."
For example, he cites the Sanctuary's long-running Taco Tuesday community meal series, which is hosted by a rotating cast of Sanctuary residents and associates and has functioned for many as a kind of gateway drug to social praxis.
"It's not always the same people, but there's always a continuous thread," Smith said. "We try to keep the process of creating art a fluid and responsible process, incorporating opportunities for interaction and feedback at every stage. It's an exciting process."