The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, June 15, 2016 6:30 am

Spotlight: Katherine Rohrbacher and Elizabeth Wamsley, 'We're Back"

Corey McMaken | The Journal Gazette

From Indiana to Southern California and back again. That's the journey two women are marking with the "We're Back" show at Crestwoods Gallery in Roanoke.

Katherine Rohrbacher and Elizabeth Wamsley will display their different art forms in the show, which has an opening reception Saturday.

After living and working as artists in Southern California, both returned to Fort Wayne for different reasons. Though the local arts community is obviously smaller than what they experienced in Los Angeles, both artists see positive aspects to some of what is being done in the Fort Wayne area.

Rohrbacher and Wamsley answered a series of questions through separate email conversations. In the edited answers below, the artists discuss why they returned to the area, the local arts scene, conversations they hope to inspire and more.

Q. I know you grew up in Fort Wayne and ended up in California for a while. What drew you to California and why did you return to Fort Wayne?

Rohrbacher: My sister was living in Venice, California, and when I was in graduate school in Baltimore, I went to visit her and I instantly fell in love with it. I had only known Los Angeles for it's negative stereotype so I was never interested in living there until I went to visit and realized how diverse the city is and that there is a place for everyone there. I was seduced by the laid back beach life and the thriving art community. It was a completely different and exciting world. I knew I didn't want to live in New York so Los Angeles was the next best place to be for art.

After living in Venice for a year with my sister I moved into a large artist loft in downtown Los Angeles and was there for 5 and a half years. During that time LA was booming and rent prices had increased so much that the price of a small apartment was now the same price I was paying for my huge loft. Los Angeles was just becoming too expensive for me to live there and keep painting so instead of getting a job that would take up all of my time and energy, I decided to move back to Fort Wayne, continue making art and spend priceless time with my family.

Wamsley: I lived in LA (mostly Santa Monica and Venice) for 27 years. I was living in Bloomington, Indiana, and what was to be a two week vacation hiking and traveling with my then fiance/boyfriend turned into 27 years. We at first lived in Sonoma County on a Kiwi ranch. I loved it there; I worked for a production potter down the road about 20 miles from Gyserville. My work in the BFA program at Indiana University was mostly about sculptural clay, so working for a huge production clay studio was quite a challenge. Every day I'd see the gysers go off.

From this bucolic landscape I made the choice to move to Los Angeles, where I quickly started to work on my own art. I had various studios in LA and met some wonderful artists and loved the art community.

I lived through earthquakes, especially the '94 Northridge and helped friends get what they needed from their red tagged homes. One image that will stay with me – and informs some of my work – a delicate teacup, which had fallen from a cupboard, landed on a counter, undamaged while everything else was wrecked, even large cracks in walls where you could see the outside.

From a young age, I have wondered why we consider the indoors "living" when the outdoors is so vast and wonderful. I am grateful for my life in California, it was challenging and gave me a wider view of art, life and people.

I loved the museums, especially the Pacific Asian Museum of Art. The first Getty museum just boggles my mind. The galleries were amazing – from crazy nihilistic low budget ones to blue chip.

I was also honored to be president of the American Ceramic Society – Southern California Design Chapter for two years. We had 400 members and had internationally known past/current members. Got to curate some incredible shows.

Why, then, did I return to Indiana? Basically due to family. My dad was going to be 90, now he's 98. I have been blessed to be able to assist him and learn from his sharp mind.

Also, my niehboorhood in Venice was being gentrified, what was a a mix of artists (I used to see John Baldessari at the market) musicians and writers was turning into internet upscale businesses.

Yes, I had many celebrity encounters, but that's just a sidenote. California gave me courage.

Q. There's a conversation going on locally about drawing artists to the area and retaining them. How does the local art community differ from Southern California and what can they learn from each other?

Rohrbacher: The biggest difference is that So Cal's art community is massive, but I feel that there are a lot of similarities just on a different scale. In Los Angeles there seems to be endless opportunities and infinite possibilities where Fort Wayne feels like it has a ceiling.

It's pretty hard to get into the big galleries in Los Angeles but a lot of artists are curating their own shows and creating their own pop up galleries. The first week I was back in Fort Wayne Artlink had their Pop-Up Gallery Crawl which was a great event and I was really impressed by it.

The galleries in LA are tapped in nationally as well as globally. I would go to the LA Art Show every year and a few years ago I realized there was a gallery from Carmel, Indiana, there and I was so excited to see an Indiana gallery represented at a big LA art fair. Jennifer Ford Art will be having a booth at the Market Art + Design Fair in Bridgehampton, New York, in July which will be great exposure for Fort Wayne and hopefully cultivate outside collectors.

A big thing in LA is open studio events. We had a lot of artist communities and they would open up their studios to the public. It's a great way to connect with public.

Wamsley: The biggest difference: diversity and acceptance for all style/isms of art. Let me tell you, California wasn't all about "plein air." Yes, you could find that genre, but there was such a huge appreciation for edgy art exploration.

At Begomont Station in Santa Monica, I would go and see the latest contemporary clay art at Frank Lloyd Gallery. A friend worked there, and I got to see lots of behind-the-scenes events such as Peter Volkos picked up at the airport by my friend and immediately driven to a liquor store. (Peter Volkos sculptural clay sells for over $100,000, by the way.) I could go to the openings there and talk to such giants in the clay world.

Artists were more apt to be more helpful and friendly in Los Angeles, believe it or not. Here, I would get from artists, "Oh, I hate LA and LA art." Huh?

I can see that from when I grew up in Fort Wayne to now, there is a vast jump in appreciation for art. I think the work ethic in LA was stronger. You knew everyone else was going to the studio and working, the energy was strong. Here, not so intense. Good or bad? Who knows. I am renewing my Artlink membership. I bought the current book and am intrigued with the future at Artlink. The University of Saint Francis has beautiful shows. Of course, Ann Shive has done an incredible job of showcasing all genres of art.

Q. Do you find that work you've created in Indiana is different from what you produced when you were living in California?

Rohrbacher: My work has definitely evolved. When I was in Indiana back in 2005-2007, I was creating figurative oil paintings dealing with identity and my newly found biological family.

The big change in my work really came when I was in graduate school in Baltimore. After the death of my graduate director Grace Hartigan I was highly influenced by our new director New York artist Joyce Kozloff who was one of the original members of the Pattern and Decoration movement in the 1970s. She definitely encouraged my use of pattern and glitter that I had started using in my work. I went into graduate school thinking my thesis show would be huge figurative paintings, but it ended up being glitter patterns on wood with little drawings encased in them. They were memorial paintings based on 10 of my high school classmates and a teacher that passed away.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I started combining my old style with my new style. I began making paintings about my experience with Lupus which I was diagnosed with in 2003. I would use the juxtaposition between my bright floral patterns and my black and white self portraits to express the duality Lupus creates, how it makes me feel versus the essence of my true self. In my painting "Stilled Life," I use glitter to represent the fuzzy veil that fatigue creates. I was also creating work in Los Angeles about aging, beauty and plastic surgery. What better place to make work about that than Los Angeles!

Wamsley: Yes, at first upon moving here in late 2007, few folks got what I was doing with clay. The push here was so functional, which I love by the way. However, my vision was different. Now Im saying "Go f^%$#@ yourself, I'll do what I want." It seems to work.

Q. Because it is Indiana's bicentennial: If you had to create a work of art that defined the word "Hoosier," what would the piece look like?

Rohrbacher: It would probably lean more on the cheesy side. I'd make a collage-like painting of all of the Indiana things we are known for. I'd definitely have Johnny Appleseed in it because he's my favorite historical character. I'd have to include a basketball, corn and some race cars. Maybe I'd have some historical scenes fading into more contemporary Indiana scenes.

Wamsley: I'd spend time researching all the indigenous people of the northeast Indiana area and make a huge monument. No Anthony Wayne for me.

Farmers. My great-grandfather was a farmer near Huntington.

Q. What do you hope people talk about after they visit the "We're Back" show? Is there a conversation you'd like to inspire with your work?

Rohrbacher: I believe the most personal is the most universal. My work comes from a very personal place and from my experiences in my life and I always find that opening up about myself opens others up too and great connections are made. I like people to know they aren't alone and that we all go through the same stuff.

Wamsley: Well, I would want to inspire young artists to go out into the world and LOOK AND EXPERIENCE life. Then come back, if so desired, and bring all that to their studo. I know, I know – Emily Dickinson hardly left her house. But if one can: go explore!

I'd want collectors to take a risk here in northeast Indiana to start to collect art which challenges them. For young collectors to begin to collect art – there are all price ranges – so just choose real art from real artists, not stuff from Ikea or other big box places. You can buy prints from artists! You can buy art from sculptors! Artists might even give you a payment plan!

Art needs collectors. The younger generation needs to be informed and jazzed by going to openings. More fun than bar hopping. Hey, they might find the love of their life at an opening – good converstions happen at art openings.

Q. You're busy creating a piece of art when the zombie apocalypse strikes. What do you grab to defend yourself?

Rohrbacher: I would grab a hammer from my tool box. Not very exciting but it would get the job done. Maybe I'd grab a few of my scissors for back up.

Wamsley: My heat gun. Melt those suckers.


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