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For Tiffany Patterson, spurt of creativity tempered by health scare

UPDATED: Fri., May 12, 2017, 4:46 p.m.

Meeting artist Tiffany Patterson for a coffee at Boots Bakery & Lounge is like going out with a rock star. She can’t order a Chai without someone recognizing her or realizing her art is up all over the joint.

“Did you do that picture of Mark?” asks the barista. She points to the playful portrait on the wall behind her of Spokane poet Mark Anderson, who also works at Boots. “Oh my God, I love it!”

On the opposite wall is another Patterson original, a huge acrylic painting filled with pink, purple and teal pastel-hued birds, plump bumblebees, and humorous creatures who may or may not have evolved from the sea. Or from outer space. The animals in Patterson’s worlds all possess the artist’s signature over-sized eyes, gazing serenely and knowingly, almost sexily, at the viewer.

Whimsical and fun? Yes. But there is a dark side too, something mysterious and unsettling about Patterson’s dreamscapes. They are fantastic utopias that could go bad under the wrong circumstances.

“I think a lot of people miss that. That it can be sinister,” Patterson said. “But I think of myself as an optimist. I love watching happy movies, for example, but I understand there’s darkness in the world, and I’ve seen a lot of it.”

Patterson has had her share of triumphs and heartbreaks recently.

First, the good: Her career is going gangbusters, with a year into her first “real, adult job” as a designer at the communications firm Klundt Hosmer. She is also highly sought after to design posters for cool bands, venues and happenings all over the region.

A couple of years ago, she started Spokane’s “Social Sketch,” a monthly meet-up at Boots where artists of all ages and skills drop in to draw or paint and network with other artists. “It’s also where she met local illustrator/designer Derrick Freeland. The two artists fell in love while drawing.”

She is a beloved fixture of Spokane’s growing creative community of illustrators, designers and artists, a person always willing to roll up her sleeves and pitch in for charities, benefits and events to boost the arts in Spokane.

And this Friday, at Emerge Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, Patterson will kick off her own, very personal show and benefit. The exhibit will mark the second in a series of three local art displays she’s held in just a four-month span. “It’s funny, because I hadn’t had (my own) art show in like two years,” Patterson said. “Suddenly I have three.”

Now the bad: In the middle of all this excitement and creativity, Patterson was diagnosed with uterine cancer on March 17, the day she turned 33. Two weeks later, she was in surgery, undergoing a radical hysterectomy and having several lymph nodes removed.

As a result, her show at Emerge has morphed into a benefit to help pay for her own medical expenses. “You almost have to give people something to do to help, because no one knows what to do with it,” Patterson said, with her easy smile and soft voice. “I feel like putting it out there was the right thing to do. Not to shut people out.”

Patterson is now five weeks out from her surgery. Along with her delicate nose ring and colorful hair and tattoos, Patterson now wears overalls and any clothing she can find with no waistband, per doctor’s orders.

“I know it’s just mental, but it feels wrong to stand up and feel your insides move,” Patterson said. She tires easily now, can’t sit for long, and has to lie flat several times a day.

The works that Patterson will include in her show at Emerge will be her most personal to date. Pages from her sketchbooks, pieces she has kept over the years and hung on her own walls, photos of murals she’s done – all will have spots among dozens of clipboards lining the walls of an exhibit that feels almost like a retrospective.

“It’s like sharing myself, the pieces and thoughts that I love and have kept,” Patterson said.

Patterson’s career trajectory is a story of different pieces coming together. After growing up in Wenatchee, she moved to Spokane 15 years ago to study photography at Spokane Falls Community College. She dropped out of college shy just a few credits to complete her degree. She had lost interest in academics, but she had found love. In a romantic gesture, she brought her very first design into a tattoo shop for herself and girlfriend to get inked on their calves together.

The image was of Cyclops twins, already with the over-sized eyes and flying bumblebees that are still among Patterson’s trademarks today. After purchasing several inking sessions, Patterson had no money left to tip, so she wrapped a work she had done on a cutting board (she tended to destroy canvases with aggressive brush strokes back then), and gave it to the tattoo artist.

“The artist opened it later and called me to say, ‘OK, you are doing a show. You need a cohesive body of work, and I’ll help you hang it and price it,’ ” Patterson said.

After that was another well-received show at the Baby Bar, then acceptance into the very first Terrain juried art show. “Getting into Terrain with all these wonderful, emerging and established artists was so empowering,” she said.

After that came more exhibits at coffee shops and bars, then posters for her own art shows, which led to local designer and musician Karli Ingersoll hiring Patterson to produce posters for bands. After landing a job color-correcting photos at a funeral home, she took over as interim art director when the former AD went on maternity leave.

“So it’s really kind of through art and through the band posters and through the funeral industry that I somehow became a professional illustrator and a designer without a degree,” Patterson chuckled. “It’s crazy.”

All the connections and good will Patterson has garnered over the decade she has been a working artist in Spokane is paying off now. Her fellow artists are rallying around her, and several have donated works to her upcoming benefit. They include Lori Wallin, Bevie LaBrie, Jen Erickson, Jill McFarland, Kay O’Rourke, Magan Cherry, Sue Tye, Daniel Scully, Tiffaney Paris, Kimber Follevaag, Randy Palmer, Daniel and May Kytonen, Gordon Wilson, Darcy Saxton, Ellen Picken, and Lisa Waddle.

Patterson’s exhibition will include a favorite installation of hers, one she first showed in Seattle and then in Spokane, called Tiny Trumphs/Little Victories. She will paint the title on a large span of wall, and then leave a jar full of tags and markers with 200 nails already hammered into the wall. She will provide no instructions.

“I’m always afraid that people won’t get it or that it won’t work, but the things people write are just so profound, in the simplest way,” Patterson said. “They are heartbreaking.”

“One person wrote, ‘I left the house today,’ ” Patterson said. “It’s like, yeah, that’s a little victory to someone.”

Patterson’s upcoming show is more than just a “celebration,” as she calls it. It’s a victory of sorts too.

This week was her first back in the office, where, she says, everyone has been “incredibly supportive.” She was supposed to wait 6-8 weeks before returning, but Patterson is eager to resume a normal life.

Best news? Patterson’s removed lymph nodes were tested and found to be cancer-free. Although she may be prescribed chemo pills as part of her treatment, she will likely not have to undergo radiation.

Tiny triumphs and little victories, indeed.