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Architect/artist brings ruins to life

Playhouse show examines forts as chronicles of place.

Designing buildings wasn’t enough for Frank Karreman; he wanted to paint and draw them.

The island architect brought a sketch book on his travels, and the pages soon were filled with the structures he admired.

Closer to home, he was captivated by the crumbling fortifications at Fort Ward and Fort Worden, sites that have sparked artists’ imaginations since the bunkers were abandoned at the close of World War II.

That inspiration is the basis of a new exhibit of Karreman’s work on display in the Playhouse lobby gallery through February.

“As an architect, I am often involved in the process of ‘place making,’” Karreman said. “In this work, I attempt to explore my own ideas about what makes a place,” he said. “My hope would be that one (pursuit) informs the other.”

The subject matter includes former living quarters and a hillside promontory, but it was the emplacements that most compelled Karreman.

“The ‘living ruins’ these fortifications represent combine a historical association with evidence of the continual natural diminishment of their substantial presence,” he said. “They’re like the classical ruins of antiquity in their relationship to land and place.”

Karreman photographed the sites, images that became the spring point for mixed-media works that border on abstraction.

While the artist is interested in formal relationships – the structure and texture of the architectural elements, the play of light on the forms and their relationship to the surrounding physical features and landscape – the work, particularly the charcoal studies, also convey the foreboding mood of the abandoned fortifications.

Crumbling flights of concrete stairs are set at right angles to each other, recalling printmaker M.C. Escher’s images of staircases leading nowhere.

Karreman made charcoal drawings of the forts on vellum, layering the charcoal and then using an eraser to remove some of the dark medium to create highlights.

The three paintings on view with the drawings range from about 2-by-3 to 4-by-6 feet in size.

Two are in oil and one in acrylic – all completed while Karreman worked toward an advanced drawing and painting certificate at the University of Washington last year.

Penn to brush

Karreman, who had considered a degree in fine arts but enrolled, instead, in University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in architecture, found that UW instructor Mark Miller helped reorient him to fine art.

Miller brought Karreman up to speed in the use of new materials, while Karreman nudged Miller into trying a salon arrangement that saw five students painting with the instructor in the same space.

The works Karreman began to produce at UW are loose and “painterly”; unlike many architects, Karreman was able to shake off the precision of design work.

“I really don’t want to be too architectural with it,” he said. “I’d like it to be a counterpoint to the architecture.”

While painting is a quicker means of capturing an image than building it, the artist sees similarities between the two fields.

“I find I am problem-solving all the time, in both,” he said.

Balancing the two pursuits will be a challenge, Karreman says; he’d like to allocate more time to the “serious avocation” of painting and drawing.

“I’d have to change the proportions, because right now my time is 90 percent architecture,” he said.

“After all, Corbusier painted in the morning and went to the architecture studio in the afternoon.”

* * * * *

The Playhouse Gallery February art exhibit features “Fortifications as a Record of Place,” a show of drawing and paintings by G. Frank Karreman.

The exhibit is free and open to the public. Information: 842-8569.

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