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Saturday, June 14, 2014


Charles Leggett in the foreground
Photo: Chris Bennion 
I know a truth about your family, even if you don't. I know it because it's universal and a theme in Arthur Miller’s deeply introspective play The Price, now at ACT Theatre in Seattle through June 22. What I know is this: In any family—from the most dysfunctional to the seemingly ideal—hearing the “true” story of that family’s past, and sometimes its present, depends on who you ask. Through different eyes and personalities, we see our family’s strengths and weaknesses, its ability to empower or disempower, its moments of pride and of shame, and out of our memories we sometimes create complex myths to wrap around ourselves like one of Grandma’s old quilts. A well made myth, like a quilt, can provide both comfort and cover, but in the end, we must cast it off like an obsolete agenda and go on. Part of Miller’s message is clearly that we, not those around us, create the circumstances of our own lives. There is a price to pay for everything.

Set by Robert Dahlstrom
Photo: Chris Bennion
The title stands for the disputed antique value of some old furniture that constitutes a dead father’s estate, but the word means so much more. The cast consists of only four characters, and all have paid a painful price for the choices they’ve made, and they reveal resentments, regrets, and some secrets when, in the fall of 1967, they meet in the attic of a New York City brownstone to dispose of the furnishings left behind in this dismal place where the family had lived after the father lost everything, we are told, in the stock market crash of 1929. It’s the only set used and seems full of ghosts.

The character at the center of this story of family conflict and consequencesa 50-year-old married cop named Victor Franz (Charles Leggett)has martyred himself for nearly three decades, stoically doing his duty, both on the streets and at home. He had cared for his elderly father, convinced of the need, and thereby established his role as the good son. That role formed the foundation of his existence, until the old man died. Now, with his father gone and while facing retirement, he must reassess his life and his excuses. His wife, Esther (Anne Allgood) has stood by him, pinching pennies, doing without, because of his meager income. All the while, she has wishes he had finished college, followed his dream of being a scientist, and gotten a better job, even though she has done nothing with her own life.

Peter Silbert as Solomon
Photo: John Cornicello
When Victor gives up hope of reaching his estranged brother, a wealthy doctor named Walter Franz (Peter Lohnes), he goes ahead with plans to sell the estate and engages the services of an elderly Jewish antique appraiser and dealer named Gregory Soloman (Peter Silbert). Victor’s wife knows that selling the furniture might mean a chance to go on a vacation or otherwise finally enjoy life a little, but she feels a moral obligation to include Walter in the decisions, even while her husband is not sure he wants to share, seeing himself as more deserving. She worries, and rightfully so, that her husband will not only cheat his brother but also fail at negotiating the deal. 

Finally, something happens.

The brothers haven’t spoken in years, but just as soon as Victor agrees to sell the once elegant trappings of their early family life, at a price we’re sure is far below their value, Walter appears. And thank God for that. The introduction of the supposed villain in this good brother/bad brother tale perked up the action and interest considerably. All through the first act, my companion and I both felt ourselves drifting into unconsciousness. During a most welcome intermission in this very long play (two and a half hours) I heard comments that confirmed the same reaction in others.

Pointing back - Charles Leggett and Peter Silbert and Peter Lohnes
Photo: Chris Bennion 
I’ll never forget Leggett’s performance in The Pitmen Painters, but I felt his talents were restricted by the flat personality of this dull, depressed, and burned-out cop who spoke in a monotone manner most of the time. Only in the second set do we see him really come alive. The character did not engage my interest beyond finding him pitiful for having wasted his life. He blames others for the fact that he never finished college and hides his own paralysis behind the myth of his dutiful role. 

Walter, on the other hand, although he appears self-centeredin other words, guilty of having pursued the life he wantedis a much more fascinating character, one we don’t know whether we can believe or not. As the second act revealed ugly family secrets, unpleasant memories, and knowledge never admitted to, I began to question Victor’s version of things. I began to like Walter and wondered if he might not actually be the one with the greater amount of integrity. Was he selfish and neglectful, or did he simply see things more clearly for having stepped back and chosen an independent path? Lohnes’s fine performance gives his character depth, intrigue, and even charm. The reaction to his expressed desire to reconcile differences shape the plays most pivotal moments.

Anne Allgood as Esther Franz
Photo: Chris Bennion
Anne Allgood is one of my favorites, and she does an excellent job in her role as Esther. However, I would have liked a break from Esther’s scowling, sighs of exasperation, and gestures of defeat. In fact, the whole play felt heavy. The only humor and lightness was provided by Soloman. Again, the audience is asked to judge for themselves concerning the man’s honesty, since the value of the furniture is one person’s word against another’s. Silbert’s vivid acting adds texture and color to the drabness, and his character offers a realist’s perspective through anecdotes, observations, and advice. He provides a few laughs, but we also see his growing desperation, pain and secrets too. 

Sometimes honesty is painful, especially when you write theater reviews and put forth an opinion you know may be yours alone. I won’t be gushing sweet praise for this production, even though it was visually appealing and had many fine moments. Putting it in culinary terms, rather than a delicious dessert, it’s more like an onion being peeled layer by layer until you get to the heart of it, which takes patience. Onions can make you cry, but it’s the savory qualities you remember. In the 24 hours that passed before I began writing this review, I came to appreciate The Price on a deeper level. It speaks of accountability. It makes us think about how every choice, every action, every decision, carries a price, and reminds us that the myths we hang onto from the past can smother us as the years go by, if we don’t get out from under them. Victor, especially, has a hard time with that.

Peter Lohnes as Walter Franz
Photo: Chris Bennion 
The truth of this play is the same truth I know about your family, and mine—that so-called reality is a matter of individual perspective. Returning to the kitchen of a long abandoned house, a person might imagine they can still smell their mother’s stew simmering on the stove, for better or worse. That might be a good memory for some, but my sister remembers hating our mother's stew, sitting in her chair and crying as it got cold and the grease congealed, until she would finally give in and “clean her plate.” Our parents were kind and good, but neither families or plays are ever perfect in everyone's eyes, and neither are reviews. Like a child leaving home, very reviewer leaves the theater with his or her own unique memory of the experience, based on what they brought to it in the first place. That brings me back to the question that hovers above the stage during this drama and above my laptop as I write: What actually IS the truth, if we all have our own interpretation? 

I can recommend The Price, but like a stew, it takes a long time to cook and will taste better the next day.

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Friday, June 13, 2014


If you already bought a gift Fathers Day gift for someone, I hate to say it, but you could have done better. That is, unless you were smart enough to purchase tickets for the annual Jazz@TMP show coming up in Tacoma this Sunday, June 15. Every year, the acclaimed trumpeter Lance Buller co-produces this show with the Tacoma Musical Playhouse. This year, it falls on Fathers Day and features some very popular Northwest talent—the gypsy jazz band Pearl Django with special guest, Seattle jazz vocalist Gail Pettis

There is nothing a parent appreciates more than the gift of time with their family. Why not let that time include an unforgettable afternoon of entertainment? 

The show starts at 3 p.m. and all seats are reserved. At a mere $25 per ticket, they're going quickly, so you are advised to purchase in advance. You can order yours online, right now, right here. Tacoma Musical Playhouse is located on the western end of Sixth Avenue, near the Narrows Bridge. The address is 7116 6th Ave. in Tacoma.

Here's a taste of what's to come on Sunday, and it sure beats a new necktie.

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Saturday, June 7, 2014


"Testosterone Crystal" — based on an electron microscope Image.  First in a series of three: Testosterone, Adrenaline, Progesterone. Work in Progress by Kristen Sierra
Copper artist Kristen Sierra’s piece titled “Testosterone Crystal,” does exactly what she hoped it would do; it causes people to startle, stop, and ponder things  unseen by the human eye. Like many artists, Sierra finds inspiration in nature, but sometimes at a microscopic level. Lately, she has been working from photographic images of structures and lifeforms so tiny it takes an electron microscope to see them. Sierra interprets these images through an ancient metalworking technique called repouss√©, using tools to press against copper, thereby creating a design or image in relief. Exquisite and mesmerizing, Sierra’s works are rich with shimmering glints of the pinkish metal, jewel-like colors, and textures that invite touch. Her website is Amazon Red Art.

After originating in France, repouss√© enjoyed great popularity in Europe during the 16th-17th centuries. Obviously, many artists before Sierra have used this technique, but none have used it on microscopic subjects. “Nobody else has done a testosterone crystal in copper,” Sierra told me in a recent interview. “I can guarantee you that I’m the only person on the planet who’s done this.”

"Nautilus" — Current work by Kristen Sierra

“Testosterone Crystal” required 150 hours of intense concentration to complete and launched a series which Sierra said had “catapulted” her into a relationship with a scientist—a long-distance relationship of the most proper kind, that is. She lives on a boat in Seattle with her husband and the scientist, Dennis Kunkel, Ph.D, now lives in Hawaii, although he earned his graduate and post graduate degrees in Seattle, at the University of Washington. Kunkel is a photomicrographer, highly trained and experienced in the use of “optical light microscopy, transmission electron microscopy (TEM), and scanning electron microscopy (SEM),” according to his website. He is known around the world for the contributions his research has made to botany, microbiology, neurobiology, and other scientific fields. His wondrous and colorful photographic images simply stunned Sierra with their beauty when she first saw them. 

“One night, I was having a hard time sleeping,” she said, “so I sat up until about five o’clock in the morning, and I looked at his website for over four hours. By the time I finished, I was crying. I was just stunned that so much of the world I live in, I’ve had no exposure to, or rather that I’ve had so much exposure to, but no knowledge of. It was probably one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had.”

"Fractal Series 2/5" — current work by Kristen Sierra

Sierra got up the nerve to contact him and sent a short email. She told him she was an artist, and said she would really enjoy talking to him about the images. They communicated back for forth for about a month before she ended up making and sending to him, a piece of her copper work based on something he liked. Since then, he has been licensing Sierra to do these images in copper.

“All that from just not being able to go to sleep one night,” she said. “It just opened up a door, and you never know what’s going to be behind that door. It will be an interesting series of things. My next piece based on his work is adrenalin and then I’ll do progesterone. Then these pieces will fit side by side, as a triptych.”

In my interview with Sierra, I learned about her process, tools, feelings about her art, and more.

Candace Brown, for Good Life Northwest: Please tell me how you define repoussé, which I know is French in origin?

Kristen Sierra: My translation is “to push into.” Now, when you’re dealing with bossing, you’re working from the front of the item, so that is different. The French are pushing from the back. So, say I drew the image on the front of the piece of copper; then I would turn it over and press into and up, or into and down. If I turn it over, and I work from the front where the design was drawn, then that is bossing. (Note: Sierra said the term “embossing” is usually used when the technique is applied to paper.)

I’m more of a non-traditional copper worker because I use both of those techniques and I’ve been described by the University of Washington’s School of Art’s sculpture graduate department. I’ll use anything. I was really lucky to get to put on a demonstration there once.

"Three Ways of Telling Time"   Current work by Kristen Sierra

Brown: How and when did you learn about this technique?

Sierra: When I started this, I was eight years old. I was in the California educational system, and at the time, they highly valued art and music. We were exposed to both on a regular basis. My second grade teacher decided this was something we could all do together, so she brought in everything we needed—a pen and a piece of copper and a piece of linoleum— and that was what we got started with. She taught us how to use copper.

It seems like we’ve lost focus on art and music and recess in school. Those things really had a profound effect on my life. It’s kind of crazy. I started doing this again full time when I turned 50.

Brown: I would like to hear about your process, Kristen. 

Sierra: The process is fairly simple. First, I decide what the design is going to be. If necessary, I’ll take a photocopy and expand that view. I start with sheets of 8 oz. copper—an industry designation for that type of copper in that particular weight. I generally buy it in lengths up to about 150 feet at a time. When I started out, it was about $3.60 per pound. Now it’s about $11.60. 

tracing the enlarged electron microscope image

Brown: So, you have your copper. Then what? 

Sierra: I need to define the lowest spots first. I have a copy of the image done in black and white, and I tape the copy to the front of the copper. With a ball point pen, I trace the areas that will be the low spots. I then check the work for areas I may have missed by turning the copper piece over with the black and white copy attached. 

When I have all the low spots defined, I will remove the copy. The tracing is too light to work from so, I will then go back over each line and apply pressure as I draw over it.  This creates a well defined area which I will then fill in. In “Testosterone Crystal,” I was stippling with a double ball stylus. Stippling is a relief technique that involves making small, round dents placed close to one another, one at a time, filling each area. It takes hours. 

After the stippling is finished, the photo copy will once again be attached to the front side of the copper. I will then trace the rest of the design on to the copper.  Depending on the complexity of the design, I might repeat this process a total of three times. At the end of each phase I will remove the copy and define the line of the design clearly.

I’ve already traced the major areas that I’m going to do relief on, so I flip that copper over and then press into the copper. I use often use clay as a surface under the piece if I have a large depression I’m going to be needing to do. In some cases I might use core board that has a give to it. In the old days they used things that were very messy—tar, and wax—and all that stuff sticks to the copper. Then you have to clean that off. I don’t want to mess with that so I kind of modified that.

Historical work by Kristen Sierra — "Here Comes the Sun" — Owner, M. Green
Brown: So, now you have the texture, and then you apply the color, correct?

Sierra: There are some stages in between, depending on how much you worked the metal. “Testosterone Crystal” actually had a huge amount of metal fatigue. When metal gets hard and stiff and doesn’t want to be worked any longer, it is because you’ve scattered the molecules. If you heat the surface, the molecules kind of line up and relax. This makes the metal workable again.  This process can be repeated as often as needed during the work. Cooling the copper is done by letting it again reach room temperature slowly.  A propane torch or an industrial heat gun are my favorite tools for annealing the copper.

Brown: What are your other tools? 

Sierra: They’re very simple. A lot of them are styluses. I have a whole bunch of paper “stumps” (tightly wound paper sticks used in drawing to smooth out charcoal). They are excellent to give you a nice smooth line. You can push fairly hard on them into the copper, and it produces a nice smooth surface. I use some clay molding tools, pens, just about anything—screwdriver tips, a blandishing hammer, a jeweler’s hammer— depending on what kind of design I want to produce. I use whatever is available, generally speaking. 

"Sunny"— Current work by Kristen Sierra  

Brown: After you manipulate the metal, how do you apply the color?

Sierra: This is the part that is probably the most fascinating. When I first started doing this stuff, I was using a lot of very toxic chemicals. Ferric chloride is used in etching; I’ve use that. I’ve used ammonium and hydrochloric acid. I have asthma, so I’ve kind of gone away from that. A lot of the pieces I’ve done in the last two years have wax pencil as a base. So, it’s a high quality colored pencil, pen and alcohol ink. It gives me a huge range of colors that I wouldn’t normally have available to me. and in order to get those things to stick to the copper, I’ve had to sandblast the copper. 

I’ve just discovered a bunch of alcohol inks. When we were kids, we used India ink to darken the surface and then we’d rub it off, and the low spots would all be dark. This works pretty much the same. The alcohol ink just evaporates almost instantaneously. On “Testosterone Crystal,” I would sand it down after it dried and then reapply, then sand, and then reapply. I use 400-1,000 grit sand paper and actually sand the surface. I may paint the entire piece, then let it dry thoroughly, and sand it, and clean it off after that, and use a fixative spray to keep it from smearing. Then I will apply another layer of color. Then, depending on how it looks, I may sand that off as well, then apply another layer of fixative. So you’ve got multiple layers of fixative and color. It creates depth to the piece.

Historical work by Kristen Sierra   "Helios"— Owner, J. Shepard

Brown: Is there a final finish?

Sierra: There is. I’ve been using a gloss lacquer over the top of them so that people can touch it. I try not to put glass over the pieces because it creates moisture. As soon as the copper heats up it creates a mini environment inside of the frame. 

Sometimes, especially with copper work, I’ve felt that the tactile experience is really important. If people couldn’t touch it, it was just really disturbing to them. With my work, I think it’s really important for people to be able to touch it. 

Brown: What aspect of it brings you the most pleasure?

Sierra: I think the most interesting part of finishing a piece is the coloration of it. This alcohol ink has opened up lots of doors, so I’ve really been enjoying that. It would be called patina if it was a chemical in the traditional way, and I’m calling it patina because its the finish on the copper. I really love to do that part of it. It’s like being a painter. It’s opening up doors I didn’t know I would have in expressing color.

When I turned 50 ... I’ve described this in a number of places as having an explosion. I read everything I could get my hands on. I just dedicated a great deal of time to doing small projects and learning different techniques and learning how copper responds to heat and patinas. It has been a stunning eleven-year experience.

Brown: How do people respond to your artwork?

Sierra:  I have people come into my tent and they say, “Oh, my!” I do think it’s unusual, and I do think that when you put these things together, it creates something that hasn’t been seen before. In my opinion, if it was that moving for me to see the electron microscope images, what a surprise it will be for people walking into a museum or gallery and seeing something like this.

Even as Kristen Sierra focuses on her larger body of work—the electron microscope images in particular—she continues to sell other pieces. You can find her as a regular vendor at the Redmond Saturday Market, in Redmond, WA. She will also be at an event called Kirkland Uncorked on the weekend of July 18-20, 2014.

All photos were provided by the artist and used with permission.

Contact information

A rotated close-up of "Testosterone Crystal" by Kristen Sierra in different lighting.
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