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Warming to sumi art

"Bamboo: The Summer Gentleman" at Puget Sound Sumi Artists

“Bamboo 7,” sumi by Sally Penley. Photo courtesy of the artist

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I must confess that I've never been a huge fan of sumi art. But I'm getting there. The more of it I see, the more I like it.

There are 21 works of art in the show "Bamboo: The Summer Gentleman," and 19 of them are pictures of bamboo.

One exception is a picture of a lion by Janet Fogle called "Roar." It's a sweet picture like something you might see in a children's book. The lion's face is cleverly delineated by the use of negative white space where the paper is left untouched.

The group Puget Sound Sumi Artists is well known in Tacoma, where they have shown their work often, but to my knowledge this is the first time they have shown as a group in Olympia, and it's a nice little show. Not breathtaking or mind-boggling, but enjoyable with mostly soft and delicate pictures of bamboo - restful, contemplative pictures.

The most well-known name among the 15 contributing artists is Fumiko Kimura, who is represented in this show by a wonderful little painting called "Visitor Squirrel." It is a picture of a field of bamboo shrouded in mist with soft gray tones and layer after layer of soft imagery receding in depth. At the bottom are two small squirrels. It is a dreamlike, mysterious scene that makes the heart happy.

Most of the works are in black and white, or predominantly black and white. One nice exception is Mary Shizuko Bottomley's "Sounds of Bamboo," which is painted in soft tones of a light green with, as in Kumura's painting, layers in space, but in this case not so much receding in distance but layers in shallow space as if painted on separate sheets of glass, dark gray-green on one level and white on another.

There is stillness in most of the pictures. Not so in Laura Mosley's "Summer Storm." In this picture, a small bird hovers beside bamboo stalks with many leaves blowing in a strong wind that creates a feeling of fast motion. Mosley captures movement tellingly.

Puget Sound Sumi Artists encourages their members to experiment and not be hedged in by sumi tradition, which is why we see in this show three paintings by Sally Penley, a well-known calligrapher whose studio is in the building where this show is being held. There is much about calligraphy that relates stylistically to sumi art (traditional or modern). Penley's works fit in well, although they are not traditional. Her "Bamboo 7" is more abstract than any of the other works in this show. There are geometric shapes with sharp, clean edges; one a vertical bar from top to bottom that is an abstracted bamboo shoot, and a circle behind it that looks like a mirror or a camera lens, within which can be seen a stylized, flat mountain range. And on top of everything is a network of black brushstrokes in varying widths that are elegant and lyrical and mimic the feel of Asian writing. As in Bottomley's paintings, each element rests on a different layer in space.

Another painting that I enjoyed tremendously is Andrea Erickson's "Misty Falls," a picture of towering mountains in the mist, each with evergreen trees on top, painted with a sparse use of heavy brushstrokes that modulate from the deepest, inkiest black to the softest of grays. Erickson is a master of brush and ink.

I liked this show enough to go back and see it a second time, and I suspect you will, too.

"Bamboo: The Summer Gentleman," 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, through July 29, The Loft Gallery at Buck's 5th Avenue, 209 5th Ave. SE, Olympia

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