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For Marmot’s anniversary show, artist Melissa Cole shows off new techniques

Artist Melissa Cole poses with Marmot Art Space owner Marshall Peterson with a painting that will be featured in the gallery’s third anniversary show this month. (Marshall E. Peterson Jr.)
Artist Melissa Cole poses with Marmot Art Space owner Marshall Peterson with a painting that will be featured in the gallery’s third anniversary show this month. (Marshall E. Peterson Jr.)
By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

The first time local artist Melissa Cole showed her works at Marmot Art Space was for the gallery’s opening in Kendall Yards three years ago. She was excited to help bring attention to a new art space, but had second thoughts after seeing the gallery’s temporary entrance: a huge, ugly plywood slab.

“It was hilarious … It looked awful!” Cole said. “I said, ‘I’m just going to do this giant koi and put it in there and it will look so much better.’ ”

So Cole did. And the gigantic fish she painted to cover the Marmot’s eyesore of a front door sold quickly. The koi, symbolizing courage and overcoming adversity, was an auspicious symbol for Marmot’s beginning.

The plywood entrance has long been replaced with sleek, floor-to-ceiling glass doors that lead into the industrial cement-floored, white box gallery. Marmot Art Space has since become a fixture in Kendall Yards and contributed to the vibrancy of Spokane’s downtown art scene. Like Spokane’s unofficial mascot itself, the Marmot is cute, quirky and thriving. Marmot celebrates its third birthday during this First Friday’s downtown art walk. Cole returns to headline the show.

Marshall Peterson, who lived in Mexico photographing rock bands for a decade, directs and curates the gallery. Since moving back to Spokane six years ago, Peterson’s projects include producing “Spokane Fifty,” a book and exhibition highlighting contributors to Spokane’s creative sector, and he edited the book “The River Remembers,” a visual history of the Spokane River Gorge by local artist Kay O’Rourke. As a vitality builder, of sorts, for Kendall Yards, Peterson has helped to found or organize PorchFest West Central (music festival), the Kendall Yards Night (farmers’) Market, MarmotBoy Alley Block Party and summer concerts for the neighborhood’s Rock the Nest events.

Peterson said that Cole was more than just a sentimental choice to celebrate the gallery’s third year. She is known throughout the region for her large public installations and community murals, including her mixed media permanent “Riverdance” at the Spokane Convention Center, her salmon and snake glass mosaic installation in Lewiston, Idaho, and her “Onward and Upward” community mosaic at the Jacklin Arts and Cultural Center in Post Falls, to name a few.

“(Cole) spotlights nature at time when species are dropping off the planet at an incredible rate,” Peterson said. “I hope (her paintings) inspire owners of her art to be more involved in protecting this unbelievably incredible home that we’ve been gifted.”

Cole’s artistic focus on fish, flowers, mermaids and bodies of water stem from her love of nature and her firsthand experiences with wildlife. She has a degree from Oregon State University in zoology and marine ecology, and has written more than 30 children’s natural history books. After graduation, she worked for several years as a nature guide and a diving guide in the Galapagos Islands, the Virgin Islands and Mexico.

Cole said she often tries to capture the imagery of nature in motion.

“I do a lot of salmon and trout because I’ve been swimming with them before, and I love the motion that they create underwater,” she said. “A lot of people paint trout so that they look sort of dead, but it’s not true. They’ve got really beautiful, serpentine motion underwater.”

Another signature of Cole’s is how she blends the patterns and colors of the exotic places where she’s lived and traveled into her works. The scales of the fish she paints and the waters they swim in are dappled with the patterns embedded in various tribes and cultures she has encountered in her life.

She is a world traveler, having grown up in Bombay, London and Hong Kong. She served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador and continues to travel to far-flung locales to work as a diving model for her photographer husband, Brandon Cole. Melissa has now graced the covers and inside pages of countless diving and nature magazines, clad in full scuba gear and a snorkel, posing with bright coral, exotic fish and many, many sharks.

The Coles will travel in May to some of the last untouched places in French Polynesia to hunt for more clear water and sharks.

“Brandon loves sharks more than anything,” she said. “And I love sharks too.”

Cole’s life as a citizen of the world explains why she paints her Pacific Northwest animals, fish and plant life with embedded ethnic designs.

“The patterns (I put into the fish) might be what I would see in Indonesia or Thailand,” Cole said. “They’ve go those beautiful batiks there that they have in their clothing, and those patterns might turn up (in my fish), so my work is often a melding of the exotic and what’s in the area.”

For her Marmot show, Cole will pull together a variety of pieces highlighting some of the new techniques she has learned in the past three years including encaustics, which she recently exhibited at the Dean Davis Galley, and fused glass.

“I’ve found it very helpful to be able to know mosaic, and enameled metal, and textures, and concrete sculpture, and all those different things,” said Cole, who recently collaborated with painter Ric Gendron at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. I can do different projects, and I never get bored.”

One of Cole’s newest mediums is encaustics, the process of heating pigmented bees wax and dripping layers onto a surface. Cole had noticed encaustics for years, but hadn’t been that impressed with the results she had seen. The works had appeared too gloppy and messy for her taste.

But then Cole read about artist Alicia Tormey, whose imagery happened to be on the cover of the same magazine, Professional Artist Magazine, in which Cole had been featured. “Her encaustics were so gorgeous, it looked like water to me,” Cole said. “I thought, ‘oooooooh, I need to learn that.”

Cole added small black and white drawings to her encaustics, first drawing images in pen, then photocopying those, later pushing them into the wax. After washing off all the paper, the carbon particles from the photocopy were left behind in the wax.

Cole’s encaustic pieces are abstract, but she had specific images in mind. For her piece, “Circulation,” Cole depicted a close-up, colorful cross-section of the circulatory system of a pine tree.

“I’ve been wanting to do some abstracts, I can’t just do blobs and squares,” Cole said. “They have to have some sort of meaning to me to be fun.”

Another piece Cole will bring to the Marmot is a triptych of a large salmon done with stained and fused glass. So far the piece has shown only in Seattle, at the Art Exchange Gallery. At 9 feet wide and 4 feet tall, “Cosmic Surge” is the largest triptych Cole has ever done.

Summoning the courage to get out of your comfort zone could be a lesson for all of us.

“People often tell you to focus on one medium, but how limiting it is not to try all kinds of different things,” Cole said. “First, you have more tools in your toolbox, and you can always pull from that and decide to incorporate new elements into your work.”

Similarly, Peterson also encourages people to open their minds to trying new things, like looking at art.

“I focus on inviting ‘normal’ people (to Marmot), who don’t necessarily have advanced degrees in art or who would ever consider attending art openings,” he said. “New people are discovering the gallery every day.”

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