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Tue, Feb. 18

Local artist showing in Flagstaff home gallery

A gallery opening this Friday marks a first for local artist Rene Westbrook and Flagstaff art lover Bonnie Feather. For Westbrook, it's her first Arizona show. And for Feather, it's the inaugural show in her home-based exhibit space.

The exhibit, "Water Women: New Paintings," opens this Friday with a reception from 5:30-9:30 p.m. at 1015 Navajo Drive. It is the first of a series of monthly shows that Feather will host in conjunction with Flagstaff's First Friday Gallery Walks.

The two women met last summer while working on the Grand Canyon Music Festival. After seeing Westbrook's portfolio, Feather invited her to present the debut showing.

For this exhibit, Westbrook has created about a dozen big, bold pieces that are part whimsy, and part powerful expressions of freedom and empowerment. As the title of the show conveys, those messages are told through images of women and water.

"My work has pretty much always been about women," Westbrook said. "Women's work, women's myths, women's reality."

She challenges all of those perceptions with images of large, fearless women in bathing suits in postures conveying freedom.

"They're women of substantial size, no shrinking violets," she said. "I think that there is such a sense of physical release in the diving paintings, giving up your control, flying through the air, slicing towards water."

She has painted most of the pieces with this show in mind. She started work in September with much of the creating concentrated over the past two months.

She said these are the biggest paintings she has done, acrylic 4 1/2 feet by 5 feet on canvas banners hung from dowels.

"I've just been working for years on the same size paper, 32 by 24, and wanted to try working bigger," she said. "I've done dozens of mural projects as an artist-in-residence, and am really comfortable with BIG but haven't had the opportunity to do much of my own big."

Until the past decade or so, she conveyed those messages in mixed media wall hangings that she calls "shrines to the everyday" and constructs that were commentaries on excess and feminism.

Because of the toxic materials that she used for those creations, she switched to painting when she became pregnant with her daughter, Annabelle.

Water became a powerful theme in her work when she moved to Arizona, starting with a series of diving women.

She attributes it to being a water person who feels landlocked in the desert. More recently, mermaids have emerged.

She questioned their legitimacy at first, asking herself, "Do they belong airbrushed on the side of a van with rusty black and yellow California plates?"

In researching them, however, she discovered that they represent transformation and change.

"The mermaids seem to be heading towards confrontation with the land-based women," she said. "I'm not sure what might happen next."

Though this series has a lighthearted feel buoyed by the perception of vast, cleansing bodies of water, some of the inspiration is in an ecological nightmare known as the Pacific Trash Vortex. This mass of flotsam comes from all over the world and has concentrated in an area known by sailors as the Doldrums, a patch of ocean bypassed by wind and currents.

"When I first read about it, about a year ago, it was reportedly the size of Texas," Westbrook said. "It's actually there. It's actually three times the size of Texas. No one sees it, because it's in a part of the Pacific that generally sees no traffic."

This floating mass has become its own ecosystem, attracting birds and sea animals who mistake degrading bits of plastic for food and absorb the toxic chemicals leaching from discarded containers.

"Things are sure to mutate, but for now they're just caught in it," she said.

That leads to the darker side of her vision, a series entitled "Endangered Species," that challenges surface perceptions.

"Under the surface, and floating on the surface is a huge mess that we've created without even knowing it," she said.

It's no accident that Westbrook is drawn to ocean themes. Though she has been artistically inclined all of her life, her childhood dream was to be like Jacques Cousteau.

She started college as a biology major with the goal of becoming a marine biologist, then, after taking five years off, thought about becoming a midwife. Instead, she started exploring art classes and graduated in 1990 with a degree in ceramic sculpture.

After that, she worked as an artist in residence for state art agencies in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Alaska and did workshops in California and Nevada as well.

She is the founder of a group of collaborators based in Montana, known as the Caravan Project. Most of her professional contacts are there, and she will appear in four shows next summer, two group shows and two solo shows.

She has done some artist in residence work and workshops here at Grand Canyon School and expects to get more involved in support of International Baccalaureate curriculum. One of her projects with the second grade was a pinecone arrangement inspired by the work of Andy Goldsworthy, an artist who uses natural materials. That work has been "on display" around a tree in front of the school for three years and is still a work in progress.

"Every now and then, a kid will come up to me and tell me that they tidied up the pinecone piece or added to it," she said. "They like it."

In another that she did with the kindergarten, the students adorned fence pickets with paint, buttons, bottle caps, wire, thread and other materials, then displayed them outside.

"I really believe in using non-precious and recycled materials in kid's workshops," she said. "Then they're freer to just experiment and play. If you give them a big piece of perfect white paper, it can be really daunting. But if you give them a fence stake and a bucket of house paint, they go to town."

To get to the show, take Highway 180 into Flagstaff. Turn west on Havasupai, follow the road to the end and take a left at the T intersection. 1015 is on the right side of the street.

Ample parking is located a block away. After the reception, the exhibit will be available for viewing by appointment by calling Feather at 928-774-4353.

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