There are so many ways through Chapeks labyrinthian paintings.
There are so many ways through Chapek's labyrinthian paintings. All the ways, courtesy Drie Chapek/Greg Kucera Gallery

There's a scene near the beginning of Jim Henson's Labyrinth where Sarah, the puppet-epic's thespian protagonist, is fed up, lost in a maze of brick. She hits the maze's walls, screams, and collapses.

This is where she meets the 'ello worm.

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"‘Ello!” says the grub-looking Cockney worm to Sarah. He has tiny tufts of blue hair, gently demonic eyes, and a respectable-looking red scarf.

“You don’t by any chance know the way through this labyrinth, do you?” asks Sarah.

“Who me? Nah, I’m just a worm.”

“I have to solve this labyrinth,” Sarah sighs, “but there aren’t any turns or any openings or anything! It just goes on and on.”

“Well, you ain’t looking right,” says the worm. “It’s full of openings. It’s just you ain’t seeing them.”

The worm tells Sarah to look at the wall directly in front of her. And yes, there it is, it turns out—an opening. Sarah just needed to change her perspective.

Ello, little dude.
'Ello, li'l dude. All the ways, courtesy Drie Chapek/Greg Kucera Gallery

This advice—that a wall might become an opening if you shift the way you look at it—could also help unlock Seattle artist Drie Chapek's paintings, currently on view at Greg Kucera Gallery in Pioneer Square. Chapek's show, Churning, her second show at the gallery in two years, is populated by labyrinthian, colorful, and large abstract works. At over six by six feet, some paintings are bigger than their viewers and feel like rooms they can climb into.

Labyrinth's worm appears at the center of Churning, popping up in the piece "All The Ways," which lives in a privileged spot in the gallery, right near its entrance. It's a piece you can spend time with. Notice how the plate of flan evolves into a hand, or how flowers break up a swirl of reds, or think about that worm smacked in the middle. When viewing Chapek's work, it can be easy to feel like Sarah, running down corridors with creatures of unknown origins.

Chapek in her studio. She sits in front of Stand Up Within and Escape No Escape, both in Churning. The exhibit is on display until the end of May.
Chapek sits in front of "Stand Up Within" and "Escape No Escape," both in Churning. The exhibit is on display until the end of May. Photo by Anna Redmond

"Jim Henson is my hero. I mean, I grew up with him," Chapek recently told me over Zoom. "I got to see [Labyrinth] on a large screen in our cute little Edmonds Theater when David Bowie died," Chapek said, referring to the Main Street theater in Edmonds, Washington, where she lives with her family. "That experience of watching that sculptural film in real-time with an audience was just like living art. It was so incredible."

Chapek told me she's fond of tricksters of all kinds. "I was raised in a way to take everything as it was delivered... and I sort of was shocked when I left my home and found out, y'know, that's one kind of perspective. There are all these other perspectives in the world."

The worm in Chapek's painting is a little reminder to "check" how you're thinking. "He's cute but powerful."

Chapek tries to obscure things that could be triggers for judgment in her viewers.
Chapek tries to obscure things that could be "triggers for judgment," like faces. "Outstretched," courtesy Chapek and Greg Kucera Gallery

Chapek's paintings create flurries of movement through their overlapping sightlines—it's hard for your eye to linger in one place for long. "Quite a bit of the layout that I use, the movement, is working toward opening up and vulnerability," she said, going on to tell me that a lot of her process is influenced by somatic therapy.

That alternative form of therapy focuses on a person's perceived physical sensations (somatic experiences), often to relieve symptoms of disorders like PTSD. "The practice is basically just watching your nervous system," she explained. Her sister is a somatic therapist in Kansas City, and she got her into the practice.

"The idea is that you can use objects around you to place yourself in the room. Just by looking at something, you can become more grounded in yourself. You can watch your heart rate, take a deep breath. And so what I've done with the structure of the paintings is to have difficult areas—things that are hard to see, like a face—and then I'll provide a relief—like flowers opening up or a billowing. Then I'll go back into something difficult, and then maybe something hilarious."

"I'm hoping that is something that allows vulnerability in the viewer. It's kind of a test. We'll see if it translates," she laughed. "It works for me."

Theres plenty of room to check out the exhibit safely. No appointment is necessary, just bring a mask, keep your distance, and come any time between 10:30 AM and 5:30 PM Tuesday through Saturday.
There's plenty of room to check out the exhibit safely. No appointment is necessary. Bring a mask, keep your distance, and come any time between 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery

Chapek was born in Detroit in 1979 to “a life of transition and movement,” as she has described it.

She grew up between multiple homes, splitting her time between Kansas and Pennsylvania, or New York and South Carolina. As a kid, she'd spend her time drawing, which eventually led to painting and creating sets for local theater productions. She earned a degree in fine art—with Seattle-born artist Roger Shimomura as her painting teacher—and a minor in set design, which comes out in her work. Chapek credits her mother, who allowed her to paint all over her room as a child, as being an influence. Stepping in and out of worlds, both imaginary and literal, continues to preoccupy her painting.

All of that flying had an impact, too.

“It wasn’t until COVID when I realized how significant that time was for me, to be trapped on a plane in the ‘80s and ‘90s," Chapek told me. "There were no screens. I had motion sickness, so I could never read. And the audio was horrible—it was like you’d plug it in and they’d play like elevator music. So I would just look out the window and think. And I think that’s really where I started watching my thoughts."

"Just the experience of touching down and seeing farm life or seeing city life or the suburbs," she said, referring to flying, although she could have equally been referring to the clash of scenes in her paintings. "All these people and all these accents. It’s just such a big experience in humanity as a kid to travel that much.”

Chapek speaks to the ongoing process of evolution that is constantly swirling around us and in us, a process that somehow manages to slip through our fingers, never visible in the moment, writes Lauren Gallow in Churnings show notes.
Chapek, surrounded by her labyrinths. Photo by Anna Redmond

"Humanity" is the theme Chapek comes back to the most. "That’s what I’m trying to paint. I shifted into this sort of working-from-the-collage in October of 2019, out of an attempt to try and share more about what I was looking at and influenced by."

Chapek's paintings start out as research that takes the form of collage work. When she was beginning to paint professionally she thought, "Oh, I'll just go to the canvas and just move it around," but noticed that the work didn't turn out as well. She'll now paint directly in response to a collage, but she refers to the collages more as "image boards" and less as direct blueprints.

“I’m trying to keep it more distant and more about humanity and how we all relate and interconnect," she said. As she paints from the collage, Chapek will remove what she calls "triggers for judgment"—things like faces or recognizable objects that might cause a viewer to assign values onto the work.

The collages make appearances in this show, near the back part of the gallery. While it can be illuminating or tempting to compare the drafts, that can also bring in some of the "judgment" that Chapek is trying to get away from.

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Still, the collages are gorgeous.

“I was not thinking of those [collages] as objects, but Greg [Kucera] is a great object collector," she explained.

Justice Defender, one of the collages available for purchase in the show.
"Justice Defender," one of the collages available for purchase in the show. Courtesy Drie Chapek/Greg Kucera Gallery

Chapek initially got into Seattle's art scene in the early 2000s, shortly after completing her degree. She "didn't have any success" connecting with galleries for years when she first came to the city. Not that she didn't try. Chapek exhibited in over 40 different shops and restaurants in the area, and "if the show didn't sell out, then I'd show it again," she explained.

She got discouraged around 2010 after a big show at Zeitgeist still couldn't knock her into Seattle's art world. "I wish I would’ve been more talkative, a little more aggressive," she confessed. "I was just timid."

Yet here she is a decade later, with her second show at perhaps the most prestigious contemporary gallery in town.

This paintings empty streets were inspired by the empty streets of March 2020.
The empty streets of March 2020 inspired this painting's empty streets. "It's Quiet," courtesy Drie Chapek/Greg Kucera Gallery

The breakthrough moment happened after Chapek picked up painting again in 2016, when Margy Lavelle at IE Gallery in Edison, Washington, presented Chapek's work and suggested she talk to her friend in Seattle named Greg. That Greg was Greg Kucera.

When Kucera came to Chapek's studio, "He was like, ‘Why haven’t you ever contacted me?’" She broke out laughing as she told the story. "I was like, ‘Check your email, dude.’"

Now, twenty years after arriving on the scene, she has his full attention.

"It was so fast!” she laughed.

Drie Chapek's Churning runs through May 29 at Greg Kucera Gallery.

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