What’s striking about Drew Elicker’s art, aside from its vibrant colors, is how it’s spanned so many distinct eras of his life.
Elicker’s standing sculptures and wall pieces are being showcased in the Ferguson Gallery of the Jefferson Museum of Art and History through Feb. 24, under the heading of “Touching Color,” which fits with his self-conception as a “colorist,” but even he conceded that his earliest artwork has its roots in unexpected sources.
“You can see my oldest flat paintings here, in watercolor,” Elicker said, as he escorted The Leader through the exhibit of his work.
The crisp images and saturated colors of Elicker’s older paintings display his love for the animals and plants of the Pacific Northwest outdoors, where he spent much of his time as a child and young man.
“Originally, as a kid, I was interested in letter forms,” Elicker said. “My dad had a typewriter, and I got into calligraphy. That led to sign-painting, silk-screening and making posters for the high school band.”
A resident artist at Centrum in the 1970s, which provided him with a graphic arts studio, Elicker’s developing affinity for the graphic arts turned into an extended tug-of-war between pursuing commercial art and the fine arts, right up to when he studied bronze-casting under the recently deceased Tom Jay in the 2000s.
“I love sculpting, but I don’t have my own foundry, and bronze is very heavy and expensive,” Elicker said. “To produce bronze sculptures even at the half-size scale that I work in would require an engine to lift them.”
It was while he was still working at The Leader that Elicker experimented after hours to create a material of his own design, consisting of layers of wadded newspapers and string, tied around a steel armature and dipped in an acrylic latex emulsion.
“The metal rods provide the framework, and soaking the newspapers in that acrylic resin makes them hard as a rock,” said Elicker, who routinely repeated the process of modeling and dipping as many as 25 times, before he applied the final layers. “It took each one so long to dry, in part because there wasn’t any air getting inside to help dry them out, that I’d start the next one while I waited. I’ve have between six and eight sculptures in process at a time.”
As befitting a man who’s said that color “drives just about everything I do,” applying the final coat of paint to his sculptures was Elicker’s favorite part of the process.
“I’ve said these sculptures are like 3-D canvases for me,” Elicker said. “I love the brightness of color, and juxtaposing different colors against each other. Tom would always talk about the range of colors you can get from bronze, but to me, it’s nothing like this.”
Elicker’s greatest burst of creativity came when he reluctantly retired from The Leader in 2014, after more than two decades of working there.
“I felt like a rat abandoning the ship, leaving all my old pals behind,” said Elicker, who finally made peace with his move when he came to see it as the next stage in his evolution as an artist. “It’s like athletes who talk about being ‘in the zone,’ because I was working in my shop from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.”
Elicker took care to clarify that his sculptures are not “statues or monuments,” but instead, simply tributes to ordinary people, engaging in everyday activities, whether it’s walking the dog, sweeping the sidewalk or bringing home a box of pizza.
“When Ann Welch approached me about curating an exhibit of my work, I told her, no lucite cases,” Elicker said. “I want people to touch my work, and feel its textures. It’s very tactile. It’s not fragile papier-mâché. It’s washable, and even fixable, although I had to indemnify the gallery against any potential losses due to damage.”
Elicker believes so strongly in making his art directly accessible to audiences precisely because he believes that his work doesn’t become art until it’s made available to an audience.
Elicker has cited Norman Rockwell and R. Crumb as artistic influences, the former because of his indefatigable work ethic — “he painted seven days a week, every day of his life” — and the latter because of his “spontaneity,” with both artists earning points from him for their “directness.”
“I once asked Tom (Jay) what the sculptural equivalent of a rough sketch was,” Elicker said. “He told me it was a maquette, or a version of the sculpture in miniature.”
This is where your humble arts editor feels the need to step in briefly in the first person. When I spoke with Elicker, he noted how bronze requires so much attention to detail, because “you can practically see the artist’s thumbprints,” so in contrast to working until 2 a.m. on bronze sculptures with a dental pick to etch precise details, he initially described his work as “almost anti-detailed.”
And speaking as an outside observer of his art, I don’t think he gives himself nearly enough credit. Elicker is astute in comparing his work to the artwork of Crumb, because Crumb’s sketches often possessed a greater degree of detail than his finished, inked artwork, but they were deliberately uncivilized details, with crazy amounts of cross-hatching.
Elicker’s sculptures have their own cross-hatching, with countless textured lines on their surfaces, but he explained this was borne of necessity rather than style, since the lines are the impressions left by the strings he tied around the newspapers to hold them in place, as he applied his acrylic resin.
As for the half-size figures’ poses, Elicker either based them on people he’d seen, or else recruited his wife to join him in recreating the poses, to ensure he had their three-dimensionality mapped out accurately.
“With the sculpture of the man helping his wife put on her coat, it helped to know the exact twist of her hips, as she turned around to put her arm through the hole,” Elicker said. “You can see, in the position of her feet, a sense of movement. I don’t like my figures to look static.”
Elicker’s sculpture of a young pizza delivery woman was drawn directly from someone he saw doing that job in Port Townsend, right down to her distinctive wardrobe.
“Her outfit has the nonchalance of youth, but it’s just as likely she thought it out very carefully,” Elicker said.
Elicker drew from his childhood memories to recreate an accordion player he saw on the streets of Seattle. A pair of backpackers consulting their map are based on a German couple that he met during his own days hiking the Pacific Northwest.
“When I went out backpacking, it was a solitary thing, but as I saw the affectionate unit they had formed, puzzling out that map together, I wondered why I’d never brought any of my girlfriends hiking,” Elicker said. “They told me they’d come out here because there’s no true wilderness left in Europe.”
Elicker has enjoyed how much audiences have been able to apprehend his artwork, and he recalled one family with a blind member who were given a special tour of the exhibit.
“When I was in college, there was one person in our group of friends who was blind, and I remember they asked to feel our faces,” Elicker said. “Sculpture is the one visual medium that blind people can actually appreciate, except they’re generally prohibited from doing so.”
As the blind woman proceeded through his exhibit, Elicker delighted in how she laid her hands on each sculpture, in one case deducing that the accordion player must be blind, because he was accompanied by a dog.
“When she got to my sculpture of a woman who’s looking at an old dress, wondering if she can still fit into it, this lady said, ‘That’s a woman hanging out her laundry,’” Elicker said. “I love that it spoke to her. It’s not what I intended the sculpture to mean, but that doesn’t matter. We each take our own meaning from art.”
For those who can see Elicker’s colors, it’s perhaps notable that Elicker applied his paint colors to all his sculptures after he experienced a stroke in November of 2016.
“I don’t want people to put an adjective before my title as an artist, like ‘disabled artist,’” Elicker said. “But yes, I had to learn how to paint left-handed.”
Elicker has continued his artistic creation with a series of shadow boxes, whose frames were designed and built by Bruce Tipton, that also appear at the exhibit.
“This one here, it’s made from spare cuts of wood, that are called ‘bird mouths’ in the boat-building world,” Elicker said. “So when I put them together and painted them, I turned them into birds’ mouths.There’s no reason to be stupid and make it more complicated than it needs to be.”
Another shadow box that hangs on the walls of the Ferguson Gallery — as part of his “Polychrome Constructions,” playing with shape and depth, in addition to color — depicts a complex network of antiquated mechanics.
“When I was in rehab, two of my therapists came to visit my studio,” Elicker said. “My occupational therapist looked at this piece, with its tubes and wires and switches, and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Drew’s brain.’”