Opening doors & hearts

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Paul Solevad rinses his brush in his studio on Nov. 3. This was Solevad's fourth year participating in Clark County Open Studios.

Last weekend’s Clark County Open Studios event, in which regional artists opened their studios for a free, self-guided art tour, reminded Washougal woodworker John Furniss of school — in a good way.

“I was working in a classroom with a group of people. I was used to chatting while I was working,” Furniss said on Saturday, Nov. 3. “It’s nice to be able to talk to people while I’m in the shop again. Otherwise, I talk to myself more than other people.”

This was a bit of a role reversal for the assumed purpose of the event, proving that an artist can benefit just as much from visitors as the guests can from seeing someone like Furniss work his craft. There were 49 other opportunities for that interaction on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 3 and Nov. 4, when artists around Southwest Washington opened the doors of their workspaces to the public for the weekend.

“I love to talk to people and learn about them. I really love these events. It gives me a chance to teach people a little bit, too,” Furniss said.

While John Furniss worked in his woodshed in the backyard, his partner, Anni Furniss, painted at an easel stationed just in front of a door that invited guests to “Come on in!”

Although John Furniss participated in the event last year, this was Anni Furniss’ first time. She said a recent focus on painting — a change from photography, her normal art medium of choice — had inspired her to share the passion.

“I think it’s a really great way to get your work out there and show people, (to) share my gifts with people,” she said. “This is kind of mushy, but I really do believe that art is healing, and it’s important to get it out there because it affects people in different ways.”

Anni Furniss was working on two paintings on Saturday — one large canvas arranged on the easel in her living room and another, much smaller piece she held in her palm. She alternated her attention between the two as guests filtered through the woodshed. She said the event solidified for her the universal appeal of art.

“There’s no language needed. You don’t even need to talk, really. You just look at art and you feel something. Sometimes you hate it. Sometimes you love it. Sometimes it makes you feel powerful emotions. I think it’s just amazing that anyone can be affected by it,” she said.

Open Studios also provided her an opportunity to be more open with her craft, something she said hasn’t always been easy.

“I’ve been scared to share my art, pretty much since I started. I find that the more I share my art, the more that’s important to people. It’s important to people that they see someone else sharing a piece of themselves,” she said. “There’s something contagious about it.”

Jennifer Williams and her sister had certainly caught that bug, stopping by the Furniss home on Saturday afternoon. Williams, the event organizer for the annual Clark County Open Studios tour, helped mastermind the orchestration.

“It’s been an inspirational day,” Williams said. “It’s a lot of work, and this is our reward.”

Describing how she “teared up” at the previous stop, Williams said she and her sister had been struck by the artwork they had seen that day.

“Everything has been so moving,” Williams said. “Getting to know the artists behind the artwork is so powerful. You take it with you when you leave.”

Williams and the artists both stressed that the Open Studios tour provides a crucial layer of context that doesn’t exist with a detached art viewing.

“The power of the energy in the room, not just the artwork, is really what you get when you walk in the door with this,” Williams said of visiting working artists in their own spaces. “The artists are so generous to open themselves up, open their homes, their studios — to share.”

Paul Solevad, a Camas painter in his fourth year with the program, echoed Williams’ sentiments.

“If you see a piece of artwork hanging in a coffee shop or a gallery, you like the piece or you don’t like the piece. You have no connection with that piece either way,” Solevad said, as he worked in his studio on Saturday. “But to come into an artist’s space, and to actually talk with them for a few minutes and get a feel for who they are, and just learn things about the art process in general, it’s just cool.”

Having visited different studios himself, he said the in-person experience can be revelatory from one artist to another.

“As a painter, to go and see a welder do sculpture is really cool,” he said.

Solevad said the revolving public door of the event isn’t a totally new environment for him — he started out in caricature cartooning after college and has taught art classes. He recognized that he represented a more “modern” take than many of the other studios, and that the abstract complexity of his paintings might require a bit more explaining. Open Studios provided an ideal format for that, Solevad said.

“It allows me to talk to each person and give my history of where I came from and how I’ve evolved as an artist,” he explained of the annual art tour. “It takes time to explain all the different facets of the work you see around here.”

Explaining the artistic process isn’t always an easy thing for an artist. Open Studios is a chance to hone that skill, Solevad said.

“You spend a lot of time talking about yourself, which is, as an artist, a good thing because you have to be able to talk about what you do,” he said. “It’s a good way to practice that and reflect on what you’re doing. It’s kind of a regrouping process.”

Artists are often stereotyped as reclusive, but the Clark County Open Studios tour gave painters and woodworkers alike a chance to dispute that myth. It also gave some of the area’s residents a look at something they might not pay any mind to otherwise.

“For people who have no artistic background, it’s very eye-opening,” Solevad said. “I think it’s really important for people to see the creative side of something they’re not familiar with.”

Williams, the event organizer, said building that bridge was exactly the point of the tour.

“There’s a message here: it’s important, it helps people,” she said. “People don’t get this any other way — it’s very different than going to the gallery.”