In the Express Lane | Artist Profile | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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In the Express Lane



Published June 15, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

It's almost impossible to tell how Sage Tucker-Ketcham makes her paintings, and she likes it that way. The smooth, amoebic shapes, stringy black lines and expanses of ethereal color hold on to her secret. But in fact, the Burlington artist's technique is pretty simple: drips. She starts by choosing a color and deciding where to put it on the canvas, then letting it pool. After that she adds another color -- acrylic house paint, watercolor, maybe some polyurethane -- and waits to see what happens. She hasn't tired of the random thrills provided by chemistry and physics. "People think I do this, but no; the paint does it," Tucker-Ketcham says modestly. "I just drink coffee and watch it."

When she's satisfied with the composition, she may drip black outlines around some of the shapes. Then comes the final and, she says, hardest part: brushing in the background color. Sometimes she doesn't do it at all; other times she'll only go part way, leaving the "unfinished" work with the somewhat unsettling energy of an unanswered question.

Being privy to this information doesn't make her paintings any less impressive to a viewer. After all, Tucker-Ketcham has created her own detour from the artistic road laid down by such revered 20th-century abstract expressionists as Jackson Pollock. And in any case, the process is not as easy as she makes it sound -- try it at home and you'll soon agree. There's much to be said for color sensibility, artistic vision and the sheer eye-hand coordination to carry it through.

Tucker-Ketcham is only two years out of college. For a woman in her mid-twenties to produce such engaging paintings, and have a dozen exhibitions on her resume, is remarkable enough. That she's just launched a gallery and art-education center in Burlington suggests she's a fearless entrepreneur as well. "I've wanted to do this," she claims, "since I was 5 years old." Tucker-Ketcham is not wasting any time following her dream.

Studio STK, which hosted an opening party last Saturday, comprises seven smallish rooms and a broad, U-shaped hallway connecting them. It's on the ground floor at 64 North Street, right in the middle of the Old North End's revitalization efforts. Tucker-Ketcham rents the space from the Burlington Housing Authority. In it, she plans to hold private and group art classes for kids, drawing on eight years of teaching experience in after-school and enrichment programs, including Burlington City Arts' summer art camps.

One of Studio STK's front rooms is a gallery; its debut exhibition is a group of wildly expressionist, "art brut"-style paintings and sculpture by Tucker-Ketcham's friend Mikey Welsh. Her own calmer works line the broad hallway, and her working studio is at the other end of the U. In between are a couple of classrooms -- the door to one bears a sign made by Welsh that reads: "Messy Kids." "I think making art should be messy," Tucker-Ketcham explains. Inside the room is a chalkboard "so I can draw examples without wasting paper," she adds.

She's not overlooking the grown-ups, though. "The parents of my students often say they'd like to do this, too," Tucker-Ketcham says, gesturing at the children's unfettered paintings hung around the room. "So I'm putting together a curriculum for adults ... It's for people who have never studied art, or for those who have but may find themselves in a corner."

Tucker-Ketcham is petite and vivacious, with dark hair and flashing brown eyes; she has a winning combination of humility, enthusiasm and self-assurance. It's easy to picture her encouraging students of any age. Yet her own artistic education was bumpy.

Tucker-Ketcham was born to young parents who divorced several months after she was born. Both are 7th-generation Vermonters who are remarried and live in the Burlington area. At age 11, Sage and her mother, Leslie Tucker, moved to Toronto, then took off the following year for Eng-land. Later they relocated to Virginia, where Sage attended all four years of public high school.

Tucker-Ketcham returned to Vermont for college and initially went to Goddard. That lasted six months. She switched to Burlington College and loved it, but the art department "did not have what I needed," she says. Finally, she decided on the Maine College of Art in Portland, where she earned, painfully, a B.A. in Fine Arts. "It was really hard, but it was great -- they basically broke me down and built me back up," Tucker-Ketcham says. "I would cry at times; the paintings were very personal and I was letting them out in the world ... But now I'm more professional; you just can't go cry in a corner."

As a student trying to find her artistic "voice," Tucker-Ketcham wrangled with a particularly demanding professor, and ultimately triumphed. "I built my own process," she explains. "Instead of reacting to the criticism, I said, 'OK, I'll show you how I can do it.' By the end I was getting As."

That process -- and steely determination -- led to work that, post-college, has attracted gallery owners and viewers alike. And Tucker-Ketcham's hypersensitivity appears to be history. Optimistic and seemingly grounded, she's walking proof that angst is not a required ingredient for good art.

Sage Tucker-Ketcham and Mikey Welsh met through the large-scale, four-panel painting, entitled "Looking Up, Looking Down," that she made during a month-long "Progress/ Process" residency at the Firehouse Gallery in 2003 -- hers was the only painting Welsh liked. Later, Tucker-Ketcham was a "special guest" at Welsh's 2004 exhibit at the Gallerie@ Opaline. They're soon to be teaching buddies as well, at some of Studio STK's summer art camps for kids. And this Friday, June 17, the two will open a joint exhibit at 47Sanctuary that features new individual works as well as four collaborative pieces.

For the latter, Tucker-Ketcham and Welsh each had their way with two canvases and then traded, working over and around what the other had done. The resultant paintings are simply extraordinary -- the combination of their very different styles is astonishingly effective and nearly seamless. But the works will surely provoke some head-scratching. "What they did is pretty amazing," says 47Sanctuary curator Joseph Peila. He's particularly fascinated by a painting titled "Ningmeng" -- Tucker-Ketcham's solid background hues, in this case bright pink, are evident, but with ghostly faces appended. "There's a sort of mythicalism to her faces," Peila notes. "I've always said I'd be interested to see where these go."

So is the artist, apparently: Tucker-Ketcham has been working on charcoal portraits since college, and several studies from that parallel interest are included in the show.

Her painting "Looking Up, Looking Down" is not at 47Sanctuary; it's still hanging in the hallway at Studio STK. But that work was responsible for another important connection for Tucker-Ketcham: Flynn Center Executive Director Andrea Rogers. "For several years she had a large, colorful painting at the [now-defunct] Ferrisburgh Artisans Guild, and there was a strength about it, wild and wonderful, that really spoke to me," says Rogers. "I thought Sage was a male, partly because of that strength." When she came across Tucker-Ketcham and her new work at the Firehouse show, Rogers invited her to apply for a solo exhibit at the Flynn's Amy E. Tarrant Gallery. "I said I wanted to do all new work and they said yes," recalls Tucker-Ketcham. She produced six large abstract paintings and 22 small ones for the December '04/January '05 show. It proved to be a commercial milestone as well -- she sold one of her big works for $2600.

But Tucker-Ketcham certainly has no intention of stopping there. "I don't want to be known as the drip-abstract painter who now makes posters and placemats. I want to keep it new, and not get bored," she suggests. "I'm at the point now where I'm, like, 'Is this great? Can I live with this painting every day? It's good, but is it great?'"