Portrait of the artist

by Sheri Boggs

JAMES FRANCIS LAVIGNE's studio is a vast white space with hardwood floors and ample light for working. His large canvases line the walls like impromptu windows onto a more vivid, idealized world, and he moves among them with a surefooted ease. Art books cover almost every surface, and a crystal candelabra holds court in the center of the room. If there is such a thing as a stereotypical artist, LaVigne fits the image. From the way he wears his hat (a beret-like chapeau solidly covering his graying curls) to the way he poses in front of his work -- palette held out to the side and paintbrush thoughtfully poised inches from the surface -- he looks like the quintessential artist.

Fortunately, he paints like a quintessential artist as well. As an upcoming show, "Sense of City," at the Spokane Club will attest, LaVigne's work reveals the city at its most beautiful, both in past and present incarnations. In one canvas, Riverfront Park glows with the sunny yellow of early autumn; in another, the granite Gothic facade of St. John's Cathedral waits for the perfect evening sky to blow in and play backdrop. And in the exhibit's showcase piece, The Barnstormer, a biplane makes a daring loop between the arch supports under the Monroe Street Bridge.

"I think of myself as what you would call an 'artistic archivist.' The majority of my work has been about recording the history of Spokane architecture," says LaVigne, who has depicted in pen and ink details from Patsy Clark's mansion, the Davenport, the Fox and other local landmarks. "But now I'm focused on the 'modern' world, and by 'modern' I'm invoking an impressionist term. I'm modernist in terms of absorbing the sensation of the moment in the eye."

His impressions of Spokane for this show are full of light and color, offering the city and its environs at their natural best.

"I have a romantic view of Spokane. I paint the things that are dear to my heart. The city itself is really quite beautiful, and I think we have an incredible sense of community here."

For LaVigne, who published a calendar last year featuring pen and ink drawings of Latah Creek, the Bowl and Pitcher area, Riverfront Park and Nine Mile Falls, Spokane's sense of community ripples out in concentric circles from the river itself.

"That's why we're here. It's that water, that river, that drew people here and made a community possible."

The river has a more personal meaning to LaVigne, making his current work possible as well. When a neighbor's fire destroyed his studio and his originals in 1996, he found solace in short half-hour sabbaticals that became daily visits to the swift and burbling waters. For a time he had a temporary studio in one of the turrets of the Spokane County Courthouse and he says it is no exaggeration that his work is hanging "in almost every office in the Courthouse and in almost every public building in Spokane."

The list of people who collect his work is long and varied, and it is only with their support has he been able to continue. When his paintings were destroyed in the 1996 fire, some of them commissioned works, he couldn't afford to reproduce them immediately. The paintings in this show, including the signature piece, The Barnstormer, were made possible by generous sponsorships from both corporate and private donors, including Global Credit Union, Larry and Linda Moberg, Clyde and Lucy Sonnenberg, Windsor Plywood, Speedy Rice, Mario Conti and Colvico Incorporated. And while the show takes place at a somewhat exclusive venue, some of the works in the show will become widely available to the public after the show.

The Barnstormer, which depicts the historic, acrobatic airplane flight under the Monroe Street Bridge, will move to a permanent home in the STA Plaza when the exhibit ends, and many of the works will be reproduced in a calendar available in November.

"James Francis LaVigne: A Sense of City" opens Wednesday, Nov. 1, at the Spokane Club and includes an unveiling of his painting The Barnstormer, ca. 1912. The opening, free to the public, is from 4-8 pm. The show

itself runs through the month of November. Call: 838-8511.

Crafting the Image

Photographs are often perceived as slices of objective reality; this was the principle embraced by early documentary photographers such as Jacob Riis and Walker Evans. And yet, behind every photographic image is someone making decisions about what will be included and what will be left out of the view.

Normally Art Seen sticks close to home, since there is so much to cover here in the Inland Northwest. But over the past 30 years, few photographers have achieved the kind of recognition and acclaim bestowed on ANNIE LEIBOVITZ, who made her mark with creative portraits of celebrities for Rolling Stone magazine. More than 70 of Leibovitz's portraits of women from a diverse cross-section of American society are on view at the Seattle Art Museum now through January 6 -- it's well worth the afternoon drive.

Originally organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Washington, D. C., Annie Leibovitz: Women was designed both to uphold and break down stereotypes of women in the United States at the end of the 20th century. The exhibition grew out of a project that Leibovitz took on with writer Susan Sontag to create an end-of-century survey of women in America. The project resulted in Women, a 240-page book of portraits by Leibovitz accompanied by an essay from Sontag. Most of the photographs now at SAM appeared first in the book, and an excerpt from Sontag's essay is mounted in the gallery.

The show's curator in Seattle is Tara Young, SAM's assistant curator of modern art. "Leibovitz collaborates with her subjects on the setting and on how they dress, using the environment to tell the viewer who the subject is," Young says.

By means of this collaboration, the photographer and her subject work together to craft an identity. Young says Leibovitz makes no attempt to disguise the constructive nature of the process. "One thing she was trying to get across in the 1980s is that every photograph is a construction, that there is no such thing as an objective photograph. In these newer portraits, the message isn't quite as obvious, but the idea is still there."

Leibovitz shot all of the portraits in the last decade. Some were done as magazine assignments; Leibovitz selected other sitters specifically for the book as the project unfolded. Subjects include national newsmakers like Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; celebrities from Hollywood and the world of sport; notables from academia, science and the media; and women unknown beyond their families and communities who nonetheless represented archetypes for Leibovitz and Sontag.

Color and black-and-white portraits mix in about equal number, but the most striking feature of the photographs is their scale. The smallest prints in the show measure nearly three feet by four feet, while the largest are six feet by eight feet. The sheer size of the images gives the subjects an iconic quality, contributing to the sense that these women are meant to be representative of American women overall.

The photographer specified that certain portraits be hung in pairs, to make a statement with the juxtaposition. A full-length color portrait of bodybuilder Lenda Murray is hung next to two stark black-and-white head shots of women who were victims of domestic violence. A huge color portrait of Las Vegas showgirl Susan McNamara in full glamorous costume, complete with headdress, stands next to a smaller black-and-white head shot, sans sequins and makeup, in which she looks more like the stereotype of a librarian than an object of sexual fantasies. Philanthropist Brooke Astor, wearing a tailored dark suit, poses inside her elegant home; on the wall to her right, washerwoman-turned-philanthropist Osceola McCarty stands in the yard of her Mississippi home wearing her everyday housedress.

It is perhaps the portraits of older women that do the most to break through our expectations and stereotypes about beauty and aging. These photographs interrogate our attitudes toward aging and find the beauty of experience and survival etched on the subjects' faces and hands.

In the book, Women, Susan Sontag closes her essay with this question: "It's for us to decide what to make of these pictures. After all, a photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?" That's the question for each viewer of this collection to ponder.

--Ann M. Colford

"Annie Leibovitz: Women" is on view at the Seattle Art Museum, 100 University Street, in downtown Seattle, through January 6, 2002. Docent-led tours are available daily. The Seattle Art Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am-5 pm, Thursdays until 9 pm. Admission to the exhibition is $10 adults, $7 students, seniors and children 7-12; free admission for children 6 and under. For more information, call the museum at (206) 654-3100.