Bead-Azzled -- Seattle Sculptor's Enchanting Forms Sparkle With Style And Substance

Another in a series of profiles of artists of all types working and living in the Puget Sound area.

A brilliant winter sun is streaming through the big windows and skylights in Sherry Markovitz's spacious, hillside studio. As the light dances on the partly finished beaded, spangled and flower-festooned animal heads mounted on the walls, it's easy to imagine the room as the workshop of a beneficent taxidermist, a good witch who turns ordinary animals into fabulously adorned make-believe creatures.

Not that Markovitz makes unicorns. She doesn't have to.

She takes common taxidermy shapes such as moose or bear heads and transforms them into animals that might have wandered out of a folk tale. They are trophies from an enchanted forest with expressions so human that you soon start seeing them as as people. The heads are noble, elegaic, confessional and presented from a distinctly female point of view. Even heads that seem obviously male, such as the heroic finished stag in a room next to the studio, seem to be cross-dressed in their mate's special-occasion finery.

"L'Chaim," the deer head in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum now on display on the fourth floor, suggests nothing so much as a tender, skittish young bride. The deer is lovely, shy, bejewelled as if for a party, the inside of her ears opalescent like fine silk. In Hebrew, the phrase means "to life," and the mix of opulent decoration on the head and neck and the unveiled innocence on the deer's face is heart-stopping.

"Yellow Bear," a head now on display at the Portland Museum of Art as part of the show "Breaking Barriers: Recent American Craft," is more knowing. His expression is wise; he's been around. But like all of Markovitz's sculptures, he's festively adorned. A garland of bright fishing lures, seashells and feathers hangs around his neck, a testament not only to his prowess in the forest and streams but to his long and successful life.

Looking at her trophy heads, critics have seen everything from statements about environmentalism, animal rights, feminism and patriarchy to homages to Native American artistry and traditional "women's work," meaning hand-sewing and beadwork. And though the work is so painstakingly slow that it takes her years to produce enough for a solo show, Markovitz has captured the attention and high praise of curators, critics and collectors nationwide.

"I've admired her work for a long time," said Mark Richard Leach, curator of 20th-century art at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C., and curator of a 1992 show of Markovitz's work at the Mint. "It's very thoughtful and very carefully conceived. The more you look at her work, the more you realize it's very complicated visually and conceptually."

Though beads have in the past couple of years become popular materials for artists and beads in general are now fashionable - witness the many shops selling loose beads to people who make their own jewelry - Leach says that "I would have to place Sherry at the top of the whole thing. No one else approaches her in terms of the technical aspect of her work or the ideas."

On this morning, the materials of Markovitz's art are neatly arranged. Long strands of threaded beads hang from tacks on a wall like a rainbow-colored bead curtain. See-through storage bins nearby house her stash of hundreds of thousands of beads: It's 15 years worth of lovingly accumulated beads, many of them rare, antique and now impossible to find. (She used to forage through the garment district in New York looking for trim shops with inventories of discontinued beads. Now, she says, such discontinued beads are considered rare and are extremely expensive.)

Many colors, many choices

She is a connoisseur of colors, and estimates that she probably has 100 different shades of blue beads alone. Among the decisions she makes each time she strings a row of beads (many of them the size of the tiniest pieces of grain) and places it on a sculpture is whether the beads should be transparent to reflect the paint underneath, or sparkling or opaque. Color is only one dimension of the decision.

Also at hand are her tubes of adhesive and spools of a special kind of high-tech thread used to make bullet-proof garments. Markovitz likes the way it can be pressed into unusual shapes, not to mention its great durability.

On the deck outside are 30 or 40 dried gourds from a specialty gourd farm. They look like great ropes of petrified sea vegetation. Some are roughly the size of misshapen footballs or basketballs. Some have four-foot-long necks that have been trained into loops. These Markovitz uses for her abstract sculptures. Though most people think of her as the artist who makes the fabulous animal heads, she also makes abstract forms based on armatures of gourds and papier-mache.

A compelling contrast

Markovitz says there is a yin and yang between the heads and abstract sculptures that she finds compelling. And they present her with different problems to resolve.

"For a while I lived near the Woodland Park Zoo, and I took a lot of walks there," said Markovitz. "My father had just died and I was thinking a lot about him. The animals seemed to grow on me, and to look like people I knew. I also realized that a lot of emotional states get translated by animals. Feelings get very complicated when you put them through humans."

On the other hand, she says that "In the abstract pieces I am trying to get away from the emotional access the animals provided in the beginning."

She has made long, thin pieces - some that resemble an elongated set of bull's horns - in muted color schemes that appear monochromatic. But she also makes round abstracts, such as a huge basketball-shaped piece in her studio. She has recently worked on a number of round pieces, including the ones called "Pink Belly" and "Twins" in the Portland show.

"The fuller and rounder the surface, the more I can play on it," said Markovitz. "It even has to do with things like the beading moving in the same direction. In Indian beadwork, the older work has contour beading that follows the form. Newer work has more linear beading. I've always really liked the contour beading. It's a whole other activity going on when it's not just moving in a straight line."

Finding inspiration in life

Like her animals, Markovitz, 47, is open and straightforward, but also careful and mindful of the words she picks to describe her life and work. She does not hesitate to mention, as a matter of course, that she spent years in therapy and that her art has often been a study of her inner life. A toddler-sized doll she is now working on was inspired partly by a trip to Mexico and her exposure to the ornate Mexican cathedrals and their splendidly adorned saints. More specifically, she says, the doll/saint is a vehicle for her to consider her own Jewish heritage and to compare its relatively austere visual landscape with the showy brilliance of traditional Catholicism.

Trained as a painter, ceramicist and printmaker, she was in her mid-30s before moving completely into beaded sculpture. (Painting and drawing still figures prominently in the designing of her sculptures. She draws many sketches, painting in possible color combinations, before starting her sculptures.)

A Chicago native, Markovitz was in grade school when she enrolled herself in drawing classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She continued the classes through high school, despite her parents' skepticism over her infatuation with art.

After high school, instead of going to art school as she wished, she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to appease her parents. There she took a class with funk ceramicist Bob Arneson - which she describes as a happy turning point in her college career - but still ended up with a degree in art education and ceramics because her parents wanted her to teach.

After an unhappy year as a substitute teacher in inner-city Chicago, Markovitz moved to Seattle in 1971.

"Seattle was wide open," she recalls. "The Mark Tobey era had passed and it seemed like a vacuum here. It felt like there were really good opportunites." For a year she worked at Pottery Northwest and sold ceramics at the Pike Place Public Market before earning a master of fine arts degree in printmaking at the University of Washington.

In '79 Markovitz had her first painting show at Linda Farris Gallery. Her paintings were of animals with startlingly guileless, human-like expressions. She liked to "distress" her canvases and ran water over finished paintings to give them an aged, dried-out look. She also started beading the edges. Of her earliest compulsions to bead, Markovitz says: "I hated the edges to be unfinished but I also didn't like to stretch canvas."

Developing a trademark

Gradually her work became more three-dimensional and decorated with beads, shells and other adornments. In '83 she had a show that was only beaded heads.

Since then, beaded work, on an increasingly elegant and grand scale, has been her trademark.

One of her most magnificent works to date is "Jake's Stag," the monumental (approximately 5 feet by 5 feet) stag head that she made when she was pregnant with her son Jake, and continued working on for several years afterward.

"I think that when you have a child, you want to give life and you want to give the child the most that you can," said Markovitz. "I wanted him to have this work and it also was an effort to be inclusive, to make him feel part of the process." Markovitz is married to sculptor Peter Millett, who also has a studio in their Columbia City home.

Observers have sometimes interpreted Markovitz's use of beads and hand-sewing as a feminist statement, though Markovitz says her attraction to beads has more to do with their qualities as art materials than issues of gender politics. She acknowledges, however, that gender seems to play a part in the way people feel about her work.

"Men don't like the abstract works as much," says Markovitz, noting that at the opening of the show in Portland, men were more interested in "Yellow Bear" than in "Pink Belly," easily seen as an extended, pregnant, throbbing belly complete with protruding belly button, or "Twins," which suggests a cell dividing at conception.

While "women more often think of the organic works as sexy or sensual . . . The trophy is still a male image, even though it is altered or refined. But the organic pieces are female-derived and are about our bodies."