Spokane’s First Friday Art Walk is back, at least for one downtown venue. The reliably avant-garde Kolva-Sullivan Gallery, 115 S. Adams St., will be the first place to host a live art exhibition in Spokane in months.
So brush your hair and straighten your mask to see the works of former Seattle resident Sara Long. Her show, “Contacting the Desert,” will open to the public Friday from 5-8 p.m. and will adhere to Spokane’s Phase 2 reopening guidelines, including wearing face coverings and keeping social distance.
Soft-spoken and intense, Long, 35, is known for her revealing self-portraits and fascination with nature. She graduated from the University of Washington in 2008 with a BFA in painting and drawing and later co-ran Blindfold Gallery in Seattle. She recently moved back to her hometown of Trinidad, California, where she spends her days painting and collecting beach trinkets on the rocky coast.
For her most recent body of work, Long turned her artist’s eye to the desert. The dry, barren landscapes have always been a place of fantasy for the painter who grew up among the rural Redwood Forests of Northern California and later lived in Seattle’s urban neighborhoods.
“I think the desert just started coming to me in dreams,” Long said. “There is something very spiritual about the desert. People go on vision quests to the desert, and all major religions were formed in the desert.”
Her curiosity took Long to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California 18 months ago, where she filmed her own encounters with nature. Her process is to choose still images from her videos to paint later in the studio.
The girl who grew up among towering pines was not mesmerized by the desert’s offerings at first, but first impressions can be deceiving.
“It was kind of like when you have a crush on someone, and you kind of project this whole story onto them, and then you actually meet them, and you are a little disappointed,” Long said. “Then you actually let them reveal themselves to you, and it’s so much more magical than you ever could have imagined.”
That Long personifies nature as a potential love interest makes perfect sense considering her work. When viewing her paintings, awash in earthy palettes and hyper-realism, it isn’t the pretty landscapes that demand the viewer’s attention. The focus centers on the artist’s own inner conversations with, and connections to, her physical world.
“I’ve always felt I’m too sensitive for this world, so I’ve always felt very attracted and comfortable in nature because it is a lot more gentle than people,” Long said.
Long looks completely at ease in her large painting “Under the Pinyon.” In the piece she is lying nude on the ground, nestled among rocks, with flowers and rocks strewn in a semi-circle, as curved and delicate as her own spine.
The intimacy and vulnerability of the moment is as stunning as though we have become lost on a hike and accidentally encountered the artist enjoying a private spiritual communion with an old friend or maybe even meeting an alien being. Would she mind if we stayed hidden in the cactus and watched quietly?
Long was raised by pot-growing, hippie parents in the Redwood forest where she had more plant and animal companions than human playmates. She made the birds, ferns, ancient trees and light her friends.
“As a kid, I just kind of disappeared into the woods and created my own little world out there, where I was safe and heard and seen,” Long said.
An expert at listening to the very ground we walk on, Long’s paintings make us want to get in on the conversation. She is receptive to the paranormal, as well. Several drawings in “Contacting the Desert” are what she calls “Mind Tastings.”
These colored pencil musings were inspired by the automatic drawings by Swedish artist Hilma af Klint in the 1880s. Klint belonged to a group of five women that conducted seances and automatic drawing sessions to try and contact the paranormal world.
“Klint would have drawing nights with her coven where they would just let go and try to draw whatever the spirit world told them to draw,” Long said. “So (Mind Tastings) are unplanned drawings, like little meditations, thoughts and communications when you are meeting the aliens or the spirit world.”
Long’s art extends to the written word. Often, her paintings are accompanied by snatches of stories, and her website at saraannlong.com also is populated with creative musings. The written thoughts add another layer of insight into the artist’s creative journeys with the natural and unknown.
Here is an excerpt from her story to go with “Under the Pinyon”:
“I found a nice little place to die. It’s pretty lovely there, but not the easiest to get to. … The sound of the wind whipping through the pine needles will make you think you are in danger of falling, but if you stay on the East side of the boulders, you are safe. Just stay close to my body, and you will be safe.”
If art-goers are not comfortable attending opening night Friday, there are other opportunities to see Long’s works up close. There is a scheduled artist talk from noon to 1 p.m. Saturday, and the artist will host open studios Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from noon to 4 p.m. Patrons also can call the gallery to book appointments on those days.