‘Elk Trap’ by Claudia Riedener at South Tacoma Library. Photo courtesy of the artist.

On a warm August day, I drove to Claudia Riedener’s house that she said would be easy to find “because we painted it orange.”  (Actually it is the color of pumpkin for pumpkin pie, just after you have mixed in the cinnamon and cloves.)  Against that unusual color, a bevy of plants, created a happy profusion of color and scent, owed in part to Claudia’s degree in botany, but mostly to her artistic eye. We went to the shade at one end of the fascinating back yard, a place that could have been a story all by itself.

Riedener’s story begins in a 1735 farmhouse near a small Swiss village set in the hills. Her family was self-sustaining.  They grew their own vegetables, hay for their livestock and foraged in the surrounding forest and fields for plants, roots and berries.  A favorite was to find young pine shoots and make a soup of those.  Because it was a working farm, all four children had their chores to do.  But they still had time to be off on their own, sometimes for hours. This was a formative time in which Riedener developed a very keen eye and passion for nature as well as a certain sense of independence.

At home, in school, and in society in general, there were no gender preferences in terms of opportunity, experience, or what positions or jobs either gender should pursue.  In spite of this, there was a problem for Claudia: she did not like dolls. It was surprising, but nevertheless her mother kept trying to interest her in what became a series of dolls.  But as early as five, she had her mind made up.  Dolls did not interest her . . .but, rocks did.  She would collect rocks and color them with crayons.  She didn’t draw faces on the rocks.  What she drew were designs of her own making, a foreshadowing of her future.

Riedener’s designing ways had no influence on what education she would receive.  Claudia’s mother insisted that she take courses in the medical field, an education that would help her earn a living.  (In Switzerland, being an artist is not an officially recognized occupation unless one has earned a degree in art and had some success.)  Although her secondary education and experience were in the medical field, after final exams Riedener quickly branched out, choosing to sample a variety of jobs.

In due course, Riedener married, and with her husband, moved to the United States.  The couple eventually settled in Chicago where she worked for the Chicago Botanic Garden. She also earned a degree in botany.  It was around this time when she began to consider learning to make tiles.  She found an instructional book that laid out tile-making in an easy, step-by-step process. To her delight, she had learned a way to combine nature with her creative spirit.

Riedener did not immediately forsake her horticultural background by plunging into tile making,  So, when they moved to Tacoma in 1999, she turned the garage into a studio but also worked at Lakewold Gardens.  In 2004 she transitioned to full time tile work.  (She gives kudos to the City of Tacoma for being “easy to work with” when she was starting her business, Ixia Tile.)

Reidener developed a reputation for quality work with design elements that were often based on plants in her own yard, and for collaboration with fellow artists.  The latter included helping launch the 100th Monkey monthly gathering of artists of all disciplines.  She is also a member of two professional organizations, Madera Architectural Elements and Artisan Tile Northwest where she is president of the board. She has also participated in the studio tour during the November Art at Work month.

In the studio there is no inventory of pieces from which a person can purchase.  Instead, there is a sample board that covers one end of the studio.  From those samples, Claudia invites the client to consider possibilities.  At this time in her career, Riedener is more interested in creating entire pieces, not just part of one even though she has enjoyed working with others as she did on the Zina Linnik Peace Park.  Her mural, “Elk Trap,” at the South Tacoma Library, is a testament to her creativity.  She is currently working on two large commissions, one to be installed at Point Ruston, and the other for Sound Transit’s Art Program (STart) for the 66th Street Underpass. The latter requires a lot of preparation, like getting rid of lead paint, but sometime in September you will be able to see her finished project, a gateway to the Manitou neighborhood.

She shows at various galleries and has installations around town, such as the ones on both the inside and outside of the Masa restaurant in Tacoma on 6th Avenue.  In addition to the October project completion, another opportunity to see Riedener’s work, as well as that of 40 others, is to attend A Handmade Tile Show (see below) in November.

Perhaps it is the influence of her natal country’s insistence on a degree in art that makes Claudia shy about calling herself an artist.  When asked how she describes herself she says, “I love my work. . .I could carve clay all day long . . .I am a tile maker.”

On a hot July day in downtown Tacoma, I was determined to park my car in a spot of shade.  Ready to give up hope after driving around and around, I finally found a shade patch on the south end of Broadway, at the corner of 13th.  Shady and an easy walk to my destination.

Four blocks later on Commerce Street I found Mad Hat Tea, an “urban tea house in the heart of Tacoma.”  I passed through the golden-framed doorway into a dim interior, pausing for a few moments to give my eyes a chance to get accustomed to the change in light.  I began slowly to identify objects in the room:  a bar along the left wall, flanked on both ends by white paper lanterns (think Ikea) and faced by five, tall bar stools; a pale wooden floor with rugs scattered here and there; two nondescript tables with nonmatching chairs; a sofa or loveseat, probably being able to seat three; various art pieces on the wall to the right; small table with two chairs, waiting for someone to play chess.  All in all, it had that cluttered yet comfortable look that invited long tenancy by the guests.  One feature I especially enjoyed was the telephone booth.  Signs request that all guests refrain from using cell phones but one young patron used her cell phone—and had stepped into the phone booth and closed the door before doing so.  I silently applauded that step toward civility.

Like the bar in the television sitcom, Cheers, this tea house seems to be one of those places where everyone knows your name.  At least, that is how it feels.  Perhaps, in part, that feeling is due to the fact that co-owner Tobin Ropes says, “I have the best job in Tacoma.”  He sets a comfortable pace as the chief cook and bottle washer, or, in this case, chief greeter, steeper, and tea server.  Any help he gets is from student interns who volunteer because they want to learn the business or more about tea itself or they just enjoy the easy camaraderie that exists across generations.

The other co-owner of the shop is nutritionist and herbalist, Maureen McHugh.  She develops tisanes (herbal teas) from combinations of  leaf, flower and root, designed to target specific conditions or symptoms.  She does not dispense medical advice, but has a well-deserved reputation among her peers for the combinations she has developed over the years, some 200 of them listed in their 3-ring binder catalog that can be referenced at the shop.

By this time, you might be thinking that I have my assignments mixed up since I seem to be reviewing a tea shop instead of talking about art.  Luckily for our local arts community, the two are tied together.  That is, in the six years’ existence of the shop, Ropes estimates, the works of some 30 artists have been on display for various lengths of time.  Some have shown for two or three times.  In addition to supporting the arts community by helping develop an audience, Ropes is generous in donating product to various art events and/or organizations.  Furthermore, Ropes has been building his own personal collection of the work of local artists.

It is from this personal collection that Ropes drew for the work currently on view at Mad Hat.  If you have ever wanted to update your acquaintance with work that is labeled as “underground” or even “subversive” or that can charm you in unusual ways, Mad Hat is the place to go.   To name just a few artists included, you can find:   Jeremy Gregory (graphics to comic strips); Daniel Blue (poetry, music, street banners); Kenji Fulmer (screen printing);  Zach Marvik’s wide array of work . . .Chris Sharp, Shaw Alexander, Fred Novak. . . This is a unique opportunity to view the work of all these artists in just one place and time.

The City of Tacoma's Poet Laureate, Josie Emmons Photo by Melina Gabbard-Shields

It was in 1998 that I first met Josie Emmons.  That was the year she became part of Tacoma’s Department of Economic Development. She brought with her a very impressive portfolio of accomplishments in the business, political and cultural world. Part of her job was to interface with the Arts Commission where I was a member.  Although we worked for common goals, it was only later, after she had become Josie Emmons Turner, that we learned that we were both poets.  We would run into each other at readings and even took the same poetry class at TCC. Finally, as she begins the second half of her tenure as Tacoma’s Poet Laureate, I had the opportunity to become better acquainted with Turner over a cup of tea.

Josie Emmons Turner refers to herself as a “true California girl.”  There is historical basis for that claim:  at the same time that Paul Revere rode his horse into our history on the east coast, Turner’s ancestors moved north out of Mexico, becoming the first settlers in the land later named “California.”  A strong oral tradition kept that history alive over the years (Turner is part of the eighth generation of her family on California soil) so that today it is a rich heritage that Turner brings to her poetry.  She writes especially about those strong, pioneer women.

In addition to that larger family history, Turner’s mother had exemplified, while still single, the modern, post-World War II woman.  At the close of the war, she moved by herself to Hawaii, traveled in China, and defined her own independence.  It is not surprising that Turner finds inspiration in the lives of these strong women who are part of her personal history.

In many respects Turner’s early personal history was the usual mix of imagination and opportunity. She took ballet lessons, memorized poetry, and created an imaginary world in her tree house. She recalls a favorite place in Carmel—a bookstore that also offered a divine cheesecake along with hot chocolate.  One of her favorite books was a small volume called “A Child’s Book of Poetry.” In an interesting turn of fate, one of her favorites of “all these great little poems” was Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”  Poetry came to be part of what her mother read to her at bedtime and often at dinner time the family members were asked to recite the latest poem they had committed to memory.

From early childhood until she was about twelve, Turner was in and out of her convent schools frequently, seeming to catch any cold or illness that was going around.  Sometimes hospitalization was required.  Although she speaks of this very matter-of-factly, it must have required a certain flexibility and resilience.

Turner graduated high school and did her undergraduate work at Seattle University, earning her BA in humanities, concentrating on music (her passion at the time) and journalism (being practical about being able to find a job).  Eventually she also earned her teaching credentials and taught in Europe.  She left the classroom and became a press secretary for high-powered election campaigns, both state and local.  Her resume also includes a stint at a print shop; working for the Philadelphia String Quartet and the Olympic Music Festival; directing the cultural programs in Auburn; and helping, as co-CEO, a youth project designed to help students complete high school and go on for further education.  Turner also went on to earn her MFA at the Rainier Writing Workshop at PLU.

Turner is back in the classroom again.  This time, she is teaching at Clover Park High School as well as serving as Tacoma’s Poet Laureate.  Both in the classroom and in the community, Turner hopes to find ways to create greater accessibility to poetry. In large part this means finding poetry that has a voice that matches that of the reader.  In both instances she hopes to offer educational opportunities (see workshop details below) that give hands-on experience in writing poetry as one way to express  “compassion and to think of ways to make the world a better place,” the same goal that she sets for her own writing.

When asked how she would sum up her life experience so far, Turner offered a statement from her deep-seated faith:  “I am blessed, enormously blessed.”

June Workshop-“The Author vs The Speaker: doing what’s best for the poem”

Description:  How do you maintain an authentic voice in your poems yet have them sing?  We will gently discuss one another’s poems and look at the works of some masters.
Dates: Wednesday, June 6 and Wednesday, June 13.  5:30 -7:30.  (Public reading June 21.)
Place:  William Turner Art Studio, 2926 S. Steel Street, Tacoma.  (facility has stairs)
Space limited to 10 poets.
Cost: $45 for both workshops and participation in reading
Registration and Information: Deadline-June 1.
Contact  josie.turner.poet@gmail.com. Submit 3 poems, indicating preferred order of workshopping them.   Payment by Paypal or direct check (details established by e-mail). Payment must be received for registration to be considered complete.

A few of Turner’s favorite poets to check out

Robinson Jeffers, Natasha Trethewey, Norman Dubie, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, Oliver de la Paz, Kathleen Flenniken, Alan Braden, Terrance Hayes, Quincy Trope, Elizabeth Bishop, Lola Haskins, William Kupinse, Rick Bardot, Kelli Russell Agodon, Michael Magee, Robert Lowell

Apollo Sunflower God, Fab-5 graffiti on the Rialto in Tacoma. Photo courtesy of Fab-5

Graffiti.  What is the first thing that comes to mind when you see or hear that word?  Probably for most people, whatever comes to mind is something negative, with corresponding words such as “defacing” and “vandalism.”  Private structures and public buildings, everything from dumpsters to boxcars, have been targets.

But picture this: A brick wall that faces an alley just off 6th Avenue is defaced by graffiti.  The owner of the building feels disadvantaged because every time he responds to the city’s requirement to get rid of the graffiti, the brick wall is again a target.  The owner contacts Fab-5, an urban art group he has heard of.  They have some artists ready, willing and able to turn that wall into a work of art.  They successfully meet the challenge and since that time six years ago, the art changes twice a year, but only within certain artistic bounds.

Picture this: Five years later, the west-facing wall of the Rialto Theater, 9th and Market, is painted.  A colorful mural/graffiti has a huge, stylized flower centered at the top and the rest of the painted wall is anchored by expressive graffiti.  This seven-day wonder, named “Apollo the Sunflower God” and created in August of 2010, is a spectacular result of the work and training of Fab-5.  That is, its Leadership Strategy Team and teaching artists gave local youth the tools needed for their graffiti to evolve into an urban art form by working within certain boundaries. One of the boundaries established here was that of detailed planning before beginning the project.  In this case, the planning and designing alone took 40 hours of the 107 hours spent on this project in only seven days.

Picture this:  School is out for the summer months.  Fabitat, the new Hilltop home of Fab-5, opens its doors to a diverse group of students who are looking to find and refine their creative voices. Those who choose graffiti as their focus learn how to channel their rebellious outlook and need for self-expression through “scribing” their names, often in an abstract way.  Through drafting and designing they begin to develop an individual style.  They learn through hard work to respect each other’s work.  For example, on Sundays the work that exists on the Graffiti Garages at Broadway and So. 7th can be painted over.  However, the new painter must observe two rules: the resulting new art must be clearly superior to what is there, and out of respect, the new painting must totally cover the old work.

Picture this:  I am hosted by Kenji Stoll, a teaching artist and member of Fab-5’s leadership team. We are seated in Fab-5’s new headquarters at Fabitat.  He has just given me my first assignment: he points to the graffiti design on the wall and asks me, “What does this say?”  He had just explained to me that a name is the central part of the design and I feel clever in calling out the first three letters, but hesitated until it dawned on me that it spelled “Fabitat.”  Fab-5’s current location, Fabitat, grew out of the City of Tacoma’s Spaceworks initiative to invigorate the city through building occupancy.

The teaching artists in Fab-5, whether helping to design and execute a graffiti project, or working with students in the other urban arts (hip hop, break dancing, Djing [being a disc jockey], spoken word, rap, screen printing, recording) have worked with their Leadership Strategy Team to help young people (ages 12-24) of diverse backgrounds create community through the arts.  Their community-building power began on the PLU campus and today, 12 years later, is recognized in a recent press release.  According to David Fisher of the Broadway Center who announced the second round of Voices of the City, “New to the team of teaching artists are members of Tacoma’s, Fab-5 who focus on engaging youth in creative expression and community engagement. Fab-5 has been doing amazing community-based art work since the year 2000.”

The FABITAT Expressive Art Center

1316 South Martin Luther King Ave

Tacoma WA 98405

Free, open art resource

Tuesday – Friday, 4-10 p.m.

On-going donor program is at Fab-5.org/Give   website: http://www.fab-5.org