Claire Vassort exhibits her hand-painted silk scarves, lanterns and holiday cards. She and eight other local artists invite you to visit their homes and look over their art in this weekend's Rising Fawn Studio Tour.
A stylized tree is a recurring motif in Claire Vassort's art. It appears in her silk paintings, on her silk lanterns and on the hand-painted silk scarves she began producing by popular request (when you paint on silk, apparently, it's only a matter of time before people begin yearning to wear your art). The Planet asked about the tree at a recent interview, and Claire acknowledged it was a powerful image for her.
“Trees are fascinating, and of course, they produce pure air,” she said. "I use them as a symbol a lot, of how they survive and how we might survive.”
And she didn't mean by just standing there photosynthesizing. "Trees have kind of a social network and they support each other," she said.
Trees may not look that chatty but Claire, who has done a great deal of reading on the subject, insists they have their own way of communicating. “When the giraffe attacks the acacia in Africa, the tree produces a tannin so that the leaves don’t so taste so good to the giraffe," said the French-born artist. "So that’s self-defense. But the amazing thing is that the trees of the same species that are around in a certain radius, that are not being attacked, they produce the same tannin.”
That's an interesting thing to know about trees, and perhaps it also provides an apt metaphor for the upcoming event that was the subject of the interview: the Rising Fawn Studio Tour, which takes place this weekend, Dec. 7 and 8. The Lookout Mountain artists who will open their studios for the tour spend their working lives holed up in them. Artists are not pack animals any more than trees are good gossip sources. But they do manage to come together and plan this annual event as a matter of mutual support.
(Photo: Work from all the Rising Fawn Studio Tour artists, except a couple who came in at the last minute, is represented here.)
“We work together," said Claire. "We get together over tea and we fold brochures." After last year's tour the artists had a potluck to compare notes, she said, which was just as well because they are all necessarily prevented from partaking of the tour itself by their duties as individual hosts of it. “One thing I don't like about it is that I’m not allowed to go around and see what is happening because I’m stuck here,” said Claire.
Lookout Mountain has long been known as a place artists work, but does it qualify as an art colony? What about the famous artistic temperament? Does everybody, like, get along? "So far, so good," said Claire with a gallic shrug.
(Photo: Claire puts in a plug for potter Mark Issenberg, who made her tea mug. He, Claire and the other participating artists all try to feature small, affordable, "giftable" items to make the Rising Fawn Studio Tour a local Christmas shopping opportunity.)
The idea of the annual art tour is that the participating studios--five this year--are all within easy visiting distance of each other, making it convenient for residents and guests to go from one to another, getting some Christmas shopping done and at the same time supporting Dade's local artists. All the artists try to have smaller pieces of work for sale to make it affordable, and to serve hot drinks and other goodies to make guests feel welcome. It's not just to raise money, reminds Claire: "It's also about seeing old friends."
The five studios are sprinkled through the Plum Nelly neighborhood atop Lookout that was once the stomping grounds of famous potter Charles Counts. Mark Issenberg is now the potter in residence there, and his is one of the studios that will open their doors this Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. both days. Here's a map.
The artists this year are:
Bonnie Cayce, a quilter and textile artist who loves to work with ethnic, vintage, exotic or one-way-or-the-other-interesting fabrics. Her studio is Cayce Creations, 1400 Plum Nelly Road.
Sharing the space with Bonnie this year will be her daughter, Anna Cayce Smit, who makes jewelry, often from recycled or repurposed materials as well as beads and gemstones; and Mary Jo Jablonski, a water color artist.
The aforementioned Mark Issenberg will open his studio, Lookout Mountain Pottery, at 3005 Plum Nelly Road. Mark makes every kind of ceramics from itty-bitty bonsai dishes like this one to big honking amphorae. Mark loves to show off his wizardly studio and large outdoor kilns, so visiting him is always a treat.
The mighty photographer Julie Clark sells not only her famous photos but also her metalworking pieces, such as this clever candle holder. (Julie welds well.) Featured this year will be yard art including bird feeders. Her studio is at 396 Plum Nelly Trail
Sharing Julie's space will be fabric artist Vista Mahan. Vista is known for her hand-dyed silk scarves. She also makes placemats, tapestries and notecards featuring sun prints of leaves from Lookout Mountain trees.
'Tis the season for Nikki Oliver, the wood carver who loves Christmas. At his St. Nicks by Nick studio, Nikki carves not only Santas but elves, angels and an impressive variety of folk-arty manger scenes like this one. Nikki is all about Christmas, and wouldn't miss this seasonal tour. He's at 436 S. Moore Road.
Which brings us back to Claire Vassort herself, whose studio is at 660 S. Moore. Claire will offer holiday cards and unframed prints as affordable stocking stuffers as well as her scarves, paintings and signature lanterns. Claire had the foresight to marry an electrician who helps her with the mechanics of these color-drenched light fixtures. "They come to life when it gets dark,” she said.
Finally, sharing Claire's space this year is another latecomer to the tour, Anna Carll, who makes abstract collages.
It was Claire who revived the tradition of a Christmas tour of Lookout Mountain artists' studios. “We did not invent the concept," she said. "It had been here, on and off, for years.” When she came here in 2001, said Claire, Becky Pennington invited her to exhibit with her and her painter husband, Ken Pennington, and Claire participated several years as a guest artist.
But it was more loosely organized back then, she said, with some artists opening their studios on different days. "Then, in 2008, there was kind of a crisis and people did not buy art for a while," she said. When the housing market crashed, so, apparently did the local art market, and the art tour tradition faded out for awhile.
(Photos: Right, a water color by Mary Jo Jablonski. Below, scarves by Vista Mahan and a collage by Anna Carll.)
Two years ago, though, the tour revived because of another disaster: Claire had an art show scheduled with a Chattanooga gallery that went pfft at just the wrong moment. “I had built a body of work, and the gallery closed down," she said. So did one in Mentone at precisely the same time. What to do? Claire determined that rather than hiding her lantern under a bushel she would open her studio doors and show her work herself. Remembering the studio tour tradition, though, she decided to see if anybody else wanted to go with. Some of the Lookout artists were interested, and Claire says all of them have been pleased with the response they've gotten with the event so far. This will be the third year of the studio tour's new avatar.
What's different this year? Besides a couple of new artists joining in, and new artwork to sell on the part of the oldtimers, the big difference is the expansion to two days. Previous tours have been Saturdays only but the artists decided to give potential guests additional options.
Claire stressed that the art tour is a group effort, and she was anxious not to steal the limelight from her fellow artists. But The Planet could not resist
asking her about the silk-painting process and cannot resist sharing her answers here with the Reader, as perhaps additional evidence that touring artists' studios can be interesting and fun.
“The thing with silk, I think, is that not too many people do this because it’s a pain in the butt,” said Claire.
It's a labor-intensive, four-stage process, she explained. First the silk must be stretched drum-tight on a frame. Then she sketches out her design on the material with "gutta lines." Gutta is a kind of glue, she said, and the gutta lines act as borders for the special silk inks she uses, which are very runny and want to go every which way when they hit the fabric. "You use that bleeding, but you also stop it with the gutta lines,” said Claire.
Claire colors in her gutta-line design on a piece of silk stretched on a frame.
The fourth stage, says Claire, is the real butt pain. To set the paints, and also to brighten the colors, the painted silks must be steamed in batches, rolled, not folded to fit in the steamer or the creases will never come out.
The steamer is a steel behemoth that lives outside in the garage because it would never fit in her studio. But Claire's glad to have it because the old one was worse. This one is electric, but the old one she had to place over a pot of boiling water, making it all more of a hot mess.
Claire learned to paint silk as a 16-year-old who somehow managed the whole process on her mother's kitchen table, from which she and all her materials were abruptly banished when it was time to serve the sacred French dinner. “But I fell in love," she said. "I was having so much fun.” Thirty years later, she's still perfecting the process, and occasionally bitching a little about it, but also still having fun.
This ain't The Planet's first rodeo: As far as The Planet is concerned, chatting with French artists who come to Dade County to paint on silk is only one more proof that this is the center of the universe, to which just anybody you might want to meet will be sucked by mysterious intergalactic forces if you wait around long enough.
But readers who have guests or relations unaccustomed to life at the pulsing heart of the cosmos may wish to impress them with this kind of glamour. If so, they may find a studio tour on Lookout a rewarding and interesting excursion this weekend. There is the additional benefit of supporting local artists. Come and be a tree in their forest!
Again, the hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday. If you need more information, the tour's Facebook page is Rising Fawn Studio Tour, 2019.