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Saturate: Spokane artist May Kytonen weaves newsprint into the story of Asian-American lives

Fiber artist May Kytonen, 28, did not intend to open her latest show “Close/Divide” during Saturate, the monthlong, citywide effort to focus attention on Spokane’s artists of color. But the scheduling snafu delaying her exhibition at the Saranac Art Gallery until February turned out to be a happy accident.

Kytonen said she is honored to be part of Saturate, now in its second year. She is more than just supportive of the initiative to promote and highlight all local artists of color during Black History Month. She credits Saturate as a factor in her decision to stay and make a life for herself in Spokane.

“I found out about Saturate during a crossroads in my art-making practice,” Kytonen wrote in her artist’s statement. “After living in Spokane for two years, I found myself in a crisis of belonging and questioning, wrestling with whether I could stay long term in Spokane as an Asian American, let alone as an artist, and asking questions about how (and if) my work and story mattered in this place.”

May Kytonen (Courtesy photo)
May Kytonen (Courtesy photo)

Kytonen, who is part Taiwanese, grew up in predominantly white Spokane before moving to another similarly homogeneous Washington community as a teen. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary visual arts from the University of Washington in Seattle, she moved back to Spokane three years ago. She returned with her husband, fellow artist and Spokane native Daniel Kytonen, to take a job at Gonzaga University’s campus ministry.

Soon after arriving in 2015, Kytonen began landing exhibitions of her fiber art in local galleries and at art events. In the past two years, she has shown at Little Dog Art Gallery, Chase Gallery, Emerge in Coeur d’Alene, and at local happenings put on by Terrain and Spokane WAM (Women + Art + Media). Kytonen was among the first group of artists of color to be included when Saturate was launched last year by Spokane Arts, the nonprofit dedicated to supporting Spokane as a hub for arts and culture in the region.

“I think every artist asks themselves ‘Does my story matter? Does my art matter? What is the purpose of speaking this into the universe?” Kytonen said. “Having Saturate was kind of like that first inkling for me that there is a desire in this community to share stories from people of color.”

Not long after last year’s Saturate, Kytonen won an Artist Trust GAP award to fund her “Close/Divide” installation opening this First Friday, Feb. 2. Kytonen’s idea for her solo exhibition was to invite friends to help her spin newspaper strips into yarn and to discuss their Asian-American identities in the Spokane community while doing it.

Kytonen used the resulting newspaper-based yarn to weave a series of five 1.5-by-9-foot panels representing the Asian-American women’s creative time together. Several other smaller pieces in the show were created solely by Kytonen and continue her exploration of Asian-American identity and the strength within fragility and connection.

Kytonen she said the stories shared among the women of growing up feeling like outsiders or “others” were touching and cathartic. One nearly universal experience the women discussed was how they are often quizzed by other locals about where they are from. When the American-born women answer “Spokane” or some other U.S. community, the followup question is often: “But where are you really from?” This painful, if inadvertent, microagression can happen several times per day.

Kytonen believes that sharing stories like these and others can highlight divisions, or even close them. “Close/Divide” has a double meaning. “The divide is between what it means to be Asian and what it means to be American,” Kytonen said. “But then also I want to close the divide, to bridge that gap and build connection.

“In my work, I highlight those places where the yarn is broken and the pieces don’t bind together, just like even in my own experiences I’ve had brokenness in my life,” Kytonen said. “But I’m going to highlight those places where things aren’t where I want them to be and say ‘This is a place for strength instead of a place for weakness,’ and that’s where I weave the gold leaf in, to show how precious that is.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct measurement of the five panels featured in “Close/Divide.”


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