The art in the tall front windows appears to be part of the architecture. It's like a carved screen sweeping the full two-story height of this curved shoebox made of concrete and wood. Actually, it's three enormous scrolls of white paper, hand-cut into a circuit board as ornate as any mosque wall. The scrolls, hung from the ceiling inside, are cut into patterns of shapes that resemble Buddhas, or birdcages, or keyholes—or things you haven't seen yet or saw too long ago to quite recall. The cutout parts of the paper were left dangling, and in curling back downward over it, they cultivate a wilderness of moving shadows on the surface. The shadows crawl all day with the sunlight.
The artist is Seattle-based Romson Regarde Bustillo, and the museum is the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Together, they make a pair almost as stunning as the legendary ferry ride to get there. Rather than featured in a cold, isolated gallery, Bustillo's art is embedded throughout the building, popping up at every turn. The start-up museum just opened in 2013. Designed by Bainbridge-based Matthew Coates, it's 20,000 square feet, and it's up for LEED Gold status with its roof garden (which I've only read of, not seen), enormous louver shades that control light and heat, and insulation made of recycled materials, including denim. But islands are known for sweeping views of anything but art. It can't be easy to run an art museum on Bainbridge.
"I saw a woman come in hesitantly, and I went to talk to her," director Greg Robinson told me at Bustillo's opening. "She told me, 'This is not what I thought it would be. I thought it would be paintings of sailboats and mountains, and I don't need to see that in here, because it's right out there. But this, I like.'"
Cascading banners above the grand staircase lead the way upstairs to more of Bustillo's prints. Much of the palette is explosively berry-colored, and the patterns resonate with the rhythms of the building's repeating lines. The exhibition is called Dugay Na, meaning "no longer new" or "a long time now" in a language spoken where Bustillo was born: Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines, where he lived until 1978, when he came to the Pacific Northwest at age 9. To a child semi-sheltered from conflict, Mindanao was romantically beautiful. But Muslims, Christians, and tribal people coexist there in a fragile, sometimes erupting balance. "It's not unlike the Middle East now," he told me. "It's about territory, and who's who, and who's native." His parents are devout Catholics. In his childhood home of "extreme diversity," he says, "history periodically ignites or is celebrated." Layers of meanings are hidden in plain sight on the streets, just like the secrets embedded in his artworks. They become like meditations; they make you question how you know the meanings of the shapes you look at all the time. It's a little like repeating a word so many times it retreats into hazy precognition.
I'd bet even Bustillo doesn't know all of what's in his mixes of cultural and personal symbols, half-remembered visions from years of world travel, and a vivid but highly coded early life. He says his art is always telling stories—that "they're just very long stories... I like to have conversations, and I like to step away from conversations." Things appear, then disappear, in his layers and patterns.
There's secrecy here, for sure. What does the title Please refer to? Bustillo walks around writing down titles as they come to him, triggered by we'll never know what. But he also sees commonality across experience. About If You Whisper to Me I Love You, I Will Do the Same, he says, "I've see that happening so many times in different places all over the world. Many people don't use those words, but they look at someone, and they just want them to say it. Or they want to say it to somebody." Our stories, he says, have a lot to do with separation and coming together, entering conversations until we leave them again.