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Something's Amiss 

Don’t be scared: Mariko Sullivan and Nate Ellefson’s art can’t really bite you

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"I like how you make trees out of human flesh. Because I do that too,” Nate Ellefson says to Mariko Sullivan. They’re standing side by side, arms folded, looking over a table of Sullivan’s work.

She nods: “Yeah, I find I like beheading things lately and putting them on trees.”

When your art swells with dismembered body parts and parasitic twins, conversations like this one seem to be commonplace. But Sullivan and Ellefson are genuine. Their art isn’t about shock-value — or at least if it is, they’re good at hiding it.

“I think I’m kind of numb to it now,” Sullivan, 24, says.

“I’ve been doing it for so long. It’s just what I do.”

The native of Ione, Wash., started doodling in the margins of her notebooks as a teenager.

“I was really fascinated by the things coming out of my head — shit I didn’t know existed,” she says. “This whole universe existed inside my brain that I didn’t know was there before. I’ve been making art ever since.”

At a glance, Sullivan’s ink-and-pen art still feels like it was lifted from a high school chemistry binder: playful, candy-colored, teeming with puffy clouds and pocket-sized ghosts. But after a second, it becomes clearer: The bottom’s dropping out here.

Sullivan’s work reveals a protozoan battlefield where sand worms and toothy maggots squeeze the life from rosy-cheeked little girls. Where people grow beaks and wear heads as hats.

“I’m fascinated by the mysteries of the world and the universe. The things that we don’t know exist beyond this planet. The things that we can’t know that we prove are true,” she says.

Ellefson, a 21-year-old Whitworth senior who has honed his skills under Scott Kolbo, plays with similar concepts in his work.

“I think a common theme that runs throughout all of my work is kind of a regeneration and interconnectedness between nature and humans,” he says.

Ellefson’s intaglio prints and screen prints are understated: browns and grays weave downplayed, offbeat fairy tales.

Dismembered hands dangle from the ends of tree branches, fox pups curl up in a light-bulb lit stomach. A forest floor is lined with layers of skin and hair follicles.

“There’s definitely something cathartic and therapeutic about [making art] — just getting ideas into a natural form,” Ellefson says.

Both artists say less about the meaning behind their work — why Sullivan’s characters always have blank white eyes, what the significance of ants in Ellefson’s work is — than about their processes. Art, to them, is about the hypnotic pursuit of marrying ideas with physical materials. Whatever is birthed from that is just chance.

“There’s something special about making something with your hands,” Ellefson says.

Especially if it’s a tree made of skin.

Works by Mariko Sullivan and Nate Ellefson are on display through Dec. 31 at Caterina Winery. Open daily from noon-5 pm. Call 328-5069.

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