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The 619 Western Ave building in Seattle's Pioneer Square is one of those storied homes for packs of people who are driven to make art in drafty rented lofts pretty much regardless of whether other people buy it. These are not careerists; they're usually either too young to have a career yet or too old to believe (or really care whether) they'll still have a career. More than 100 artists work on these six floors—which have been studio spaces since 1979—and the artist in the back corner of the Sophia Room on the fourth floor is named Marie Gagnon. Her story and her struggle might be similar to the story and struggle of many of the artists at 619, or, really, anywhere. But she's special in her ability to see it and to tell it.
Gagnon has a degree in art, and she sells her art sometimes—usually on the internet—but she doesn't make a living by painting. Instead, she works four 10-hour days a week in an office, managing the database for the Pride Foundation. After work and on weekends, she's in her studio. Painting is not a means to an end; it is just part of how she lives.
On the wall of her studio now are several—maybe 8 or 10—rectangular canvases with a single rectangle, or two rectangles of the same color (one color inside the rectangle and another color outlining the rectangle), sitting in what looks from a distance like a field of one flat color. It's as if Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian hashed out their differences.
Gagnon does not know what these rectangles are doing here, and they are freaking her out.
"I was always an observational painter," she says. "I can react. I just love to react to what I see."
But what's on her walls now is abstract. It's coming from within as much as from without. This started happening at the end of 2006, during an ovarian-cancer scare when Gagnon found herself crying for days and painting black circles.
Gagnon has been a painter most of her life—she's 49. When she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a BFA 13 years ago, half of her final show of atmospheric but realistic landscapes and still lifes (in sensible, autumnal, "Yankee" colors, she calls them) sold, and her grades were good. But her mentor told her something was missing, and she knew it, too. It turned out that what was missing was part of her. She used to call herself "the happy painter."
"Things in my life were grand," she says. "And I realized then that I could only paint when things were going well." When she and her girlfriend starting having problems as she was finishing up her thesis, she asked the girlfriend to move out so she could focus on painting. Thinking about it now, she cringes. But for the longest time, if something was wrong in her life, she'd find herself paralyzed in front of a canvas.
Then came the black circles and the cancer scare. Then a life-rending breakup, which yielded a torrent of black-and-white rectangles in charcoal on paper. (A friend bought one and called it The Angry Stove. Funny: A later rectangle painting looks like a refrigerator stranded in a horizonless desert.) Eventually, color finally came back—the same burgundies and olives, at first in blurry shapes that look as though they're being seen at night through inclement weather. Last summer, after working with a pregnant friend as a model for five weeks, observation started to come back into her work, to show up in new abstracts. The final painting of 2008 was of two rectangles with glowing outlines—not as fiercely glowing as the outlines of the earlier rectangles, which made them look like doors closed on hell—standing next to one another, one with a splintery hole in it. It's the only blatantly illusionistic moment in all of the abstract rectangles, but it reflects on all of them. Now, in addition to being doors, they are mirrors and windows, too, prone to cracking as well as to shutting away. It helps to see them in the studio, which is open every month during Art Walk, where they hang next to big, beautiful, rectangular windows framing sections of old brick buildings and shining neon signs on Seattle's original thoroughfare, Yesler Way.
Very recently, Gagnon has begun work on a larger abstract painting. It has three rectangles, interlocking and suspended inside the rectangle of the horizontal stretched canvas. She doesn't have painter's block anymore—now she's painting the block itself, over and over. She turned it into something like its own cure, or its own counterweight, so that she can live with whatever comes and still paint. On her blog not too long ago, she wrote, "I need to stay close to honesty." She and her art are closer to it than they've ever been before.