Talking with Perri Lynch Howard

A Washington artist considers the influence of place on creativity.

perri lynch howard
© Perri Lynch Howard

Albert Bierstadt. Isamu Noguchi. Julia Morgan. California and the West boast a long tradition of painters, sculptors, architects, and other creative luminaries whose works have shaped the way the world perceives, enjoys, and engages with place.

In each issue of Alta Journal, our Why This Art column asks a visual artist to describe a work that has profoundly influenced them—one that may even provoke them or get their creative juices flowing. Whether it is a photograph, a building, or an illustration, the idea is to see art through the eyes of an artist.

Perri Lynch Howard is a 52-year-old Washington State–based artist and recent Why This Art contributor known for her paintings, sculptures, printmaking, and sound installations. Intrigued by human perception and the idea of place, Howard has traveled the globe, sometimes to extreme environments, such as the Arctic, to chart and capture sites at the forefront of climate change. In 2009, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Tamil Nadu, South India. We recently spoke with Howard to learn more about her career and her influences and to gain insight into her creative process.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you decide to become an artist? Were there any alternate paths you could have taken?
Art showed up for me when I was young. I was an introverted kid. I was either reading a book or drawing. I felt safe, engaged, and loved when I was in nature. My parents and family knew that all they had to do was hand me a pencil and I would disappear for hours. Art was my way of disappearing, but I was also super interested in marine biology and physics. However, I did not have the rigors of linear thought that science demands. I liked the lifestyle of marine biology, but math and science were not my strong points. I liked to problem-solve on my own terms (which is an adult way of explaining what kids do) and invent my own worlds. I would become upset when I was working with clay and couldn’t reproduce an image or shape that I had in mind. I was very particular about the things that I made. Now that I am a professional artist, it’s fun to trace it back to the beginning.

Tell us about your experience as a Fulbright Scholar.
I wanted to explore the connections among art, community, and spirituality in Tamil Nadu, in South India. I had existing ties to Auroville, a community in South India, and admired the local kolam drawing tradition. Women make mandala-like drawings using rice flour. They tap out a grid with rice flour in the red dirt. I was amazed at how such organic and fluid designs could arise from rigid structures. I went on to discover that the kolam drawing techniques are also about counting and learning accounting. Drawing grids and connecting dots leads to skill sets that we would never imagine. I tried kolam drawing—I was terrible. I did not have the understanding. Knowing how to draw with pencil is not the same as with flour. It was a very humbling learning experience. You can’t just sit down next to another artist, watch them at work, and make their art.

When did you feel like you stepped into your own as an artist?
Other artists laid down stepping stones, and I chose to walk over some of them. I’d have to say that my desire to paint came from abstract expressionism, but there were other forms of visual information that were influencing my work and development as an artist. Maps and Cartesian systems not squarely in the art world pointed me in the direction that ultimately defined my style. When I started listening and using sound in my work, it was another way to investigate sense of place. The visual canon is so broad, it was like pointing me in a Wild West direction where anything was possible. I started listening to focus and to navigate; this led to incorporating sonic information into my work. I sort of fell into a cross-disciplinary practice of sound and image. The medium itself defined me, not really me doing it. Science was paving the way for my art.

Can you describe your style?
If my style were a three-legged stool, the legs would be navigation, intuition, and the need to explore. The Cartesian elements and other grids come out of this, of course, but it’s all rooted in a desire to connect with and interpret the landscape. If you listen closely, you can tap into the sounds, signals, and currents running through our landscape. I try to incorporate those elements into my work.

Your most recent body of work is titled Frequencies. Tell us about your inspiration for the series. What was your creative process like?
This series is really about making visual art as material traces of my listening practice. When making the individual works in Frequencies, I would witness changes in a landscape or seascape, whether that be light, shadow, wind, or other elements, and just try to listen carefully and make field recordings. Back in the studio, I would edit the audio and get a visual understanding of the sound, seeing it mapped out on the screen. When I went to paint, that visual understanding was still top of my mind. So when you view my work, you’re actually looking at a sound. Just by looking at these works, I can tell if the painting was capturing night, day, and even a specific place, like the Arctic or the Amazon or the Great Basin in Utah. I remember these places and hope they come through on the palette. I’d say what you are seeing is based on 70 percent observation and 30 percent interpretation of a specific landscape.

Where can people view these works?
In April and May, the exhibition Soundings will be on view at my local gallery in Twisp, Washington. The Seattle Art Museum Gallery represents my work, and there will be a show of new paintings there in July. In late August, some experimental works and new directions will be shown at Core gallery in Seattle.

You’ve visited the Arctic and Ecuador. How do those places inform your work?
I’ve been studying the relationship between perception and sense of place for quite some time but recently have been shifting my investigation into environments at the forefront of climate change. The Arctic is warming at a rate nearly four times the global average. And the Amazon rainforests are changing quickly, too, owing to clear-cutting, oil, and gas extraction. I went to the Arctic and to Ecuador to write, sketch, and make field recordings, with the hope of understanding how the sonic signature of these places is changing and to reinvigorate narratives about climate and the environment, based on having a felt sense of place.

I would like to think of my work as helping to spark dialogue about these places facing such dire changes and consequences, though it is a moving target. I traveled to a remote area in the Amazon with Gordon Hempton, a cofounder of Quiet Parks International. We visited the Zabalo River community of the Cofán people. It was profoundly quiet with very little human-generated noise, but the Amazon is really loud with insects, frogs, and birds! The Zabalo River is a certified quiet park. Protecting quiet has helped the Cofán protect their land and defend their borders against oil and gas interests in Ecuador. Hours would go by before we heard any anthropogenic sound. We compared notes, and sometimes it was something like 12 hours until we heard an airplane or boat.

Something that also deeply interested me down there was how the Cofán people navigate the rainforest. There is no horizon down there, deep in the jungle. You come around a river bend sensing the horizon, and it’s just more river. It really does something to you. I’d like to bring these remote places to broader audiences through my work and tell the story of how the Cofán are trying to protect their land by protecting quiet.

How much has living in Washington informed you and your trajectory as an artist?
It’s certainly changed the look of my paintings. I grew up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and I was an East Coast kid in love with the sea and rugged coastlines. But when I took an Outward Bound course to Washington, I fell in love with the mountains and open land—so much of it is publicly accessible, so different from the East Coast! I ended up going to college in Washington, and for 20 years, I had a studio in Seattle, but the more my work centered on listening and quiet, the more I was drawn to remote areas. I currently live and work in the Methow Valley. For me, the West will always be the land of ideas. The incredible rigors of thought coupled with the open land has let my creative practice unfurl in exciting ways.•

Ajay Orona is an associate editor at Alta Journal.
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