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Empire squared


BY NOW, JUST ABOUT everyone in Eureka and Arcata has encountered the creative force known as Empire Squared (E2), whether they know it or not. The art being produced by the 25 or 30 local artists who make up the group is everywhere. I'm not kidding. They had 21 formal shows in 2003 alone, and that doesn't include all the informal stuff: the graphic art, public art projects, impromptu hangings in coffee houses and donut shops, and all that "Free Art" adorning the hallways of HSU in Arcata and the backs of bus stop benches in Eureka. As I said, their work is everywhere.

[Group of Empire Squared standing in art gallery]E2 artists are maintaining a very visible community presence as well, working in art supply stores and framing shops, interning at art galleries, building and piloting kinetic sculptures, painting murals, drawing for Pastels on the Plaza. They're joining larger arts organizations like the RAA and HAC, contributing time and resources, and shaking things up. Even though the E2 alliance has only been in existence for about three years, the group has already become an energizing force within the local art community. And here's the thing -- almost all these artists are under 30 and most of them are still students.

"These kids have so much positive energy," said HSU art lecturer Jim Moore, who works with several E2 members in his classes. "They have this spark that's contagious. It's a real privilege working with them -- their enthusiasm for art transfers to the rest of the class. They're what teachers live for."

Like many alliances among artists, E2 began informally. "Jeremy [Hara] and I started doing landscape painting together and then Rachel [Grusin] started coming and then Katherine [Simon]," said Donovan Clark, one of the group's original members. "So we went out almost religiously, rain or shine, for about two years and we did lots of landscape painting. Then we started getting interested in more contemporary issues in art and more experimentation. That's when we met Forest [Stearns], during that transitional period, and we started getting into more conceptual art."

E2 has grown to include mixed-media artists, photographers, painters, sculptors, graffiti artists, videographers and musicians. While the group's members don't necessarily have common aesthetic goals, what appears to bind them together is a shared, serious commitment to creative activity. "We all have different styles, but the main thing that links us together is being really serious, positive, energetic artists," Clark said.

Alliances among creative people are nothing new, of course. Groups of like-minded artists have banded together throughout history, offering individual members not only emotional and creative support, but practical help as well. "I have friends that, if I'm not here, they can hang or take down my work for me -- if I don't have a vehicle, they can help me out," Clark said. "And critiquing -- I seldom feel like one of my pieces is done until I run it by Jeremy."

"With this group, I think it even goes deeper than those practical, networking connections," Moore said. "These kids are really challenging the boundaries of art. It's a very exciting thing to see."

This challenging of boundaries is the focus of E2's current show at the Ink People Gallery (through January), which features "contemporary/cutting edge art reflecting the postmodern age," and includes the work of 21 E2 artists.

I talked with some of the gang at the Arts Alive! opening Saturday night, asking them about the show. "Contemporary means art that's happening right now, post-post-modern, experimenting with mediums, doing stuff that people have never seen before, really trying to be different and original, crazy and eye-popping," Clark said. "We're trying to show something that's not the same art you see at Arts Alive! every month."

Clark's work in the show includes a wall of evolutionary self-portraits which he says reveal his creative thought processes, a column of stacked coffee cups which is about denying an object its functionality, and a sculpture made from two bricks, a spoon and an egg.

"Contemporary art is very broad," said Anayansi Ricketts, another early E2 member. "For me, contemporary meant using poetry and images to represent my ideas about what's going on in the world politically. For my friend Katherine Simon, all her images are about walking around Eureka -- so for her, contemporary art is about where she is right now. It's something different for all of us because everyone has their own unique vision. "

Anayansi also talked about her connection to Empire Squared. "A lot of our shows have themes or involve trying out new concepts. The group stretches me to think in different ways and to delve into ideas I've been contemplating but don't pursue until someone says `We're having a show!'"

"In the age of technology, culture is constantly changing and shifting, so we're looking for our art to express that, that change that's going on now, currently," Hara added. "Earlier, a woman came into the show and saw Donovan's piece and said, `That's just bricks and an egg -- that's not art! How is that art?' And then she went through this whole process of thinking about it, and she ultimately justified it as art, but said she didn't get it. I think that's great! She expanded her definition of what art is!"

I asked Hara what his definition of art is. "Art is constantly changing," he said. "Art is something that speaks to another person, that can't be conveyed in any other way. I feel like when I try to define it or fit it in a box, I'm doing it an injustice. The more I try to define it, the less I understand it."

Participating artists in E2's show at the Ink People include Chris Anderson, Tomas Atwood, Donovan Clark, Mike Dewey, Nikki Edge, Julia Finkelstein, Trey Gossestt, Dustin Green, Rachel Grusin, Keenan Hand, Jeremy Hara, Ryan Lee, Jesse Leimer, Luke Forsyth, Laurie Naber, Anayansi Ricketts, Katherine Simon, Cyrus Smith, Forest Stearns, J.T., and Jordan Vilardi. The show was coordinated by Donovan Clark.


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